Waley-Cohen Rounds Off Trio of Concertos with Brahms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Humperdinck, Jessica Davies, Schubert, Brahms: Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra / David Curtis (conductor), Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 17.5.2014.

Humperdinck: Prelude to Hansel and Gretel
Jessica Davies: Morning Views of Spoleto (world premiere)
Schubert: Symphony No 8 (The Unfinished)
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D

It has been a fascinating experience over the space of five months to hear the same soloist performing three of the major violin concertos of the nineteenth century – by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and now Brahms. Judging from Tamsin Waley-Cohen’s expression as the Concerto started the Brahms work was going to be the most daunting of all, but there was no lack of energy and attack in her fiery entry.  Although the concerto has been described as a “song for the violin” I have always regarded the first movement as rather serious despite its lyrical passages and one which with its long runs, sweeping arpeggios and double stopping test the soloist to the limit. Needless to say, Tamsin came through with flying colours.

After the rigours of the opening movement the Adagio was much more song-like: the opening woodwind chorale was sheer delight leading in, as it did, to the wonderful violin passage cushioned on a string accompaniment. Excitement erupted in the Allegro giocoso finale with the soloist setting off at a cracking place challenging the orchestra to keep up with her with conductor David Curtis c racking his whip.  Yet when the rhythmic pace slackened the audience were treated to some breathtakingly beautiful lyrical passages.  The concert organisers may have tampered with tradition by placing the concerto last, but what a superb climax it provided!

It was a surprise to encounter a brand new work in a concert entitled Nineteenth Century Masters, but Jessica Davies provided a thought-provoking contrast with her Morning Views of Spoleto.  It begins quietly with tremolo strings and contributions from the harp and flute which conjure up the sounds of nature as dawn breaks. Muted trumpets and trombones added a frisson to the scene picking out, it seemed,  the dramatic architecture of the place dating back as far as the Roman and Renaissance eras.  Yet the tranquillity is soon broken by an outburst from brass and percussion as human activity takes over, though the eye and ear stray at times back to the natural surroundings. There was something of interest for most sections of the orchestra and the work had an appealing freshness. It was not noticeably derivative which suggests that Jessica, an alumna of Royal Holloway College, London University, has already found her own distinctive voice.

Schubert composed his masterful Unfinished Symphony when he was Jessica’s age, so youthful endeavour is not something to be dismissed lightly. By a happy coincidence Schubert’s evergreen work was played straight after Morning Views – and with such élan! The lower strings immediately created a sense of foreboding before the entry of the agitated and restless violins; and there was plenty of tension, drama, lyricism and bitter-sweetness to follow. I began to wonder whether a group of Austrian musicians had infiltrated the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra since under the astute direction of David Curtis they managed to create a distinctively Viennese sound.

Jessica Davies has the advantage over poor Schubert: she has heard her work played during her lifetime. I only wish more English orchestras would champion new music like the CSO. Welsh composers should count themselves lucky that they have such strong support from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Roger Jones

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