Todmorden Orchestra Ebullient in Strauss and Rachmaninoff

03/07/2019

 Stravinsky, R. Strauss, Rachmaninoff: Paula Sides (soprano), Todmorden Orchestra / Nicholas Concannon Hodges (conductor). Todmorden Town Hall, Calderdale, 29.6.2019. (RBa)

Stravinsky – Suite No.2 for Small Orchestra

Richard StraussFour Last Songs

Rachmaninoff – Symphony No.2 in E minor

Todmorden’s magnificent Grade 1-listed Town Hall, dating from 1875, straddles county boundaries and county loyalties. The latter seems tired in the face of the music-making which this imposing building witnessed on Saturday night. Then again, perhaps you have to be born in one county or the other for that factor to have any effect. The orchestra hail from Todmorden and further afield, from Manchester to Halifax. The orchestra’s leader Andrew Rostron he came under spotlight in one of Strauss’s songs, and more extensively in Rachmaninoff’s symphony. In each instance his violin was burnished in tone and registered clearly.

Stravinsky’s Suite No.2 for Small Orchestra from 1921 is in fairly short movements. The whole thing serves very well as a warming up concert opener. As for the ‘Small Orchestra’ in the title, Todmorden’s contingent was far from small. The composer’s explosive cross-patch style is familiar if you know Petrushka or Pulcinella: raucous, acidic, charming, uproarious. The movements are intended to portray Sergei Diaghilev, Alfredo Casella and Erik Satie. The performance had its rough-cut moments, and in the finale once or twice sounded just a little like another USA immigrant, Kurt Weill.

In this programme, two works by Russians, both of whom settled in the USA, bracketed a decidedly Germanic work. Rachmaninoff’s symphony could hardly be more Russian even if it was written in Dresden in 1906-1907. Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs (settings of poems in German) combine the morose, the hope-imbued and the serene. They were written during his creative ‘Indian Summer’. Paula Sides made a triumph of this work; it was a performance in which the voice is first among equals. The soprano line wove backwards and forwards and into and out from the orchestral weave. Still, the challenge of getting the words to register in a big hall (echoing with the cruelly beautiful sound of a full orchestra even at quiet levels) proved only intermittently anything other than insuperable. One thing was unmistakable: Sides acted the words as well as singing them, impassioned rather than stand-and-deliver impassive. Strange how this work registers as a sort of echo across the decades of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra with its colossal sunrise, to which the Four Last Songs speak as a sustained sunset.

Rachmaninoff’s hour-long Second Symphony – a work once derided and disdained – has since the 1970s become a firmly planted regular in the concert repertoire. It brought this concert to an affirmative end after the intermission. The conductor Nicholas Concannon Hodges had a very fulsome orchestra which, allowing for a few ‘moments’, made a gladsome noise. It is divisive to single out episodes but I will just mention a few: the shivering and shuddering strings and the plaintive cor anglais both in the first movement, the principal trumpet whose instrument cut securely through the melee like a serrated blade, the squarely planted bass ‘grunt’ that ended the first movement, the impressive and endearing clarinet solo in the third movement and the strings’ starlit tone. If there is one element that burns into my memory, it is the five French horns – no doubt one as a ‘bumper-up’. They did splendidly whether in providing ostinato or whooping front-line work.

Rob Barnett

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