Steely-Slatey Sibelius in Yorkshire’s Calder Valley

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Brahms, Strauss, Sibelius: Hannah Morgan (oboe), Todmorden Orchestra / Nicholas Concannon Hodges (conductor), Town Hall, Todmorden, 15.3.2014

Brahms – Academic Festival overture
Strauss – Oboe Concerto (oboe: Hannah Morgan)
Sibelius – Symphony No.2

Todmorden again experienced a fine concert on Saturday night. On this occasion the full hall was treated to nothing short of a great performance of Sibelius’s most popular symphony at the end of a concert that opened with a creaky Brahms overture. The spirit of the music was nicely put across responding to the tension, professorial pomp and student irreverence of the piece. Unfortunately the orchestra, especially the brass, seemed out of sorts. It’s a tough piece, being prone to problems of balance given Brahms’ sometimes dense orchestration. On the other hand, the strings, who proved one of the heroes of the night sang out with pleasing clarity.

Next, the stage thinned out for Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto. The orchestra had reduced strings, pairs of woodwind and two French horns. The music owes its almost constant lyrical character to Mozart but there’s also a dash of Rosenkavalier-style romance. Whoever chose the soloist, Hannah Morgan, did well. On this evidence she will go on to an illustrious career. In a work where poetry predominates over fireworks Morgan unwaveringly held the attention and was most attentively supported. I have one grumble: towards the end of this three movement piece the oboe was rather overwhelmed by the orchestra.

Sibelius’s Second Symphony is a audience-pleaser and that’s exactly what it did. It can seem long-winded, but not this time. Phrasing was most carefully taken and the effect was telling. This is music of out and out romantic nationalism from a very full orchestra. There lies one criticism: there were a couple of occasions where a larger string complement would have produced a more gorgeous sonority. As it was they did superbly especially in capturing so very well the composer’s trademark steely-slatey sound. The whole orchestra revelled in the impetuosity and grand sweep of this work as well as in those carefully calculated hesitations, shudders, shivers and speed variations. There was a lovely sense of poise and one notable example of this came in the second movement where the cornet-toned first trumpet calls out across a Nordic landscape of rustling strings. The brass were magnificent throughout. Short of Beecham’s famous live recording I have not heard a better performance of this well-loved work. Todmorden and Calderdale can take real pride in having an active orchestra that can rise to these heights.

Rob Barnett

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