Tragedy, fairy-tales and childhood visions from Yorkshire’s Todmorden Orchestra

18/11/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Malcolm Arnold, Stravinsky, Mahler: Thérèse Wincent (soprano), Todmorden Orchestra / Nicholas Concannon Hodges (conductor). Todmorden Town Hall, Calderdale, 16.11.2019. (RBa)

Malcolm Arnold – Overture: Peterloo (1967)

StravinskyFirebird Suite (1919)

Mahler – Symphony No.4 (1901)

His orchestral dances – one set for each of the UK’s countries – show that the British composer Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006) was apt to respond to associations and moods. The Great and the Good were quick to recognise this, so it is no surprise that Arnold’s Peterloo overture was commissioned by the TUC. It is not among his finest works, but it is certainly a pungent and craftily sentimental one.

At a very well attended concert, the Todmorden orchestra pulled no punches in this Ives-like evocation of the massacre on Manchester’s St Peter’s Fields in 1819. The overture has become something of a staple; I have noted an earlier performance in Manchester Cathedral in 2012. Sir Tim Rice provided an oration to accompany the music, and had that premiered at the BBC Proms in 2014. Last year, there was even a Mike Leigh film. It might seem that he beat Ken Loach to the draw, not that there was a race. The Arnold score from 1967 was written during his years living in Cornwall. Those years that also bore The Padstow Lifeboat and the Cornish Dances. In Todmorden, the orchestra gave effective voice to the long-breathed quiet anthem that opens and closes the piece. In between, they celebrated prolonged bedlam in which the side-drum hammers away (as in Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony) in what seems like an effort to halt the bloodily tumultuous proceedings.

One of Stravinsky’s little suites appeared in the orchestra’s last concert. This time conductor Nicholas Concannon Hodges had the 1919 version of the suite from Stravinsky’s Diaghilev ballet The Firebird. The music is a showpiece but one of substance that is both brilliant and poetically moving. The orchestra were well up to form. This was obvious from many a quiet detail as well as the moments of rapturous upheaval. To take just one example, there are two sections where celesta and xylophone are heard in mirrored partnership. They were heard in perfect simultaneity; such attention to detail.

After the intermission came Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. This is one of Mahler’s most lightly seraphic visions. Its alpine glow and unrushed bloom were extremely well caught in an epic performance that was never breathless. Everything seemed a tense yet languid prelude to Thérèse Wincent’s singing of the final German-language setting of ‘Das Himmlische Leben’. It is a slight shame that the sung words and translation were not in the programme book. The innocence of this child’s vision of heaven brought the evening to a nicely balanced downbeat close. If you are used to the sort of magnificent Mahlerian hullabaloo that ends some of his symphonies, this is the antithesis. There was some risk-taking in choosing this symphony to bring the concert to a close, but I am glad that the risk was taken.

Rob Barnett

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