Appealing Symphony by Friend of Tchaikovsky

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Kalinnikov: Luke Welch (piano), Mumbles Symphony Orchestra / David John (conductor), All Saints’ Church, Oystermouth, Swansea, 23.2.2013

Tchaikovsky: Fantasy-Overture ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major
Kalinnikov: Symphony no. 1 in G minor

It is good to see a gradual revival of interest in the West in the music of Vasily Kalinnikov, a friend of Tchaikovsky who died of tuberculosis in 1901 at the age of 35, having lived in almost total poverty for most of his life. One would never think this on hearing his First Symphony, a strongly characterised, continuously fresh and appealing work. It makes imaginative and atmospheric use of Russian folk material, and the slow movement, evoking wide plains under a night sky, seems almost to anticipate the impression of empty landscape one finds in, say, Copland, or other composers with an Eastern European horizon at the back of their music. The scherzo has great vitality and the finale’s climax is brilliantly triumphant.

It was given a really convincing and persuasive performance by the Mumbles Symphony Orchestra, under their founder David John, to a small but enthusiastic audience on a freezing evening in west Swansea. I have followed the development of this orchestra for some years now, and this was the single most completely satisfying performance I have heard from them, as polished and dynamic as many professional outfits, and achieved with minimal preparation and rehearsal time.

Their soloist on this occasion was the young Canadian pianist Luke Welch, currently teaching and studying in Rotterdam, playing Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. There were a few nervous slips here and there in the notes and the ensemble, but also some lovely phrasing and delicate touches, especially in the slow movement, and an irresistible energy and lilt in the finale. David John has a fine track record of securing promising young soloists and giving them the kind of sensitive and encouraging support which must give their careers a significant boost.

The opening work in the programme was Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture, Romeo and Juliet, which by bizarre coincidence I had heard played only the previous evening by the BBC NOW under Francois-Xavier Roth (the NOW have also performed the Kalinnikov symphony quite recently). The Mumbles performance emerged very creditably from the comparison. If anything there was slightly more edge in the opening chords, and some beautiful cor anglais playing from Sally Johnson. But the highlight was undoubtedly the Kalinnikov, where one was simply carried along by the music without thinking about who was playing it.

The next MSO concert, in July, will feature the outstanding young Swiss violinist Melinda Stocker playing the Sibelius concerto, and with any luck the weather will have improved enough by then to tempt a few more to join the audience.

Neil Reeve