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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Music Festival (6): Frederick Delius: Appalachia; Sir Edward Elgar: Sea Pictures, Op. 69; Antonín Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, ‘From the New World’. Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Martin Le Poidevin (baritone); Cheltenham Bach Choir; Brno Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Altrichter. Cheltenham Town Hall 21. 7.2007 (JQ)


On Friday 20 July the visiting Brno Philharmonic gave their first scheduled concert at the Cheltenham Festival, playing a programme of Gershwin and Bernstein to an audience of some 300 people! Lest it should be thought that the local people did not consider this Czech orchestra a ‘draw’ I should explain that the severe disruption to travel occasioned by the torrential rain to which Gloucestershire and surrounding counties was subjected that day meant that the majority of those with tickets for the concert – myself included – were simply unable to get to Cheltenham Town Hall that evening. This was a great shame, not least for the players who had travelled such a distance and prepared a programme of Gershwin and Bernstein, quite possibly specially for the occasion.

Happily there was some respite from the rain the following day, which meant that the visitors from the
Czech Republic had a proper-sized audience for the closing concert of the Festival. I was fascinated to hear how this Czech orchestra would fare in English music which I suspected they’d never played before – a fact which Festival Director, Martyn Brabbins confirmed in a brief speech of welcome before the concert began. The music of both Delius and Elgar will surely have been unfamiliar to most if not all the Brno players. It’s possible that their Chief Conductor, Petr Altrichter, programmed music by these composers during his period as Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (1997-2001) but I don’t know whether he knew these two particular English works before preparing them for this concert.

Appalachia is an unusual work, inspired by the period that Delius spent in the USA, mainly in the Deep South, towards the end of the nineteenth century. It is a substantial set of variations, fourteen in all plus an Introduction and a Finale, on an ‘old slave song’. It’s often robust in tone and, to be honest, would probably have benefited from being about 10 minutes shorter – it lasts for about 35 minutes and does tend to meander at times. The other factor that may inhibit more frequent performances is the inclusion of an SATB chorus. It’s not a choral work, however. The full choir only sings in the last few minutes of the work, prior to which the male voices only contribute just a few interjections, ‘la-la-la-ing’ briefly in two or three of the variations. On this occasion the choir comprised members of the Cheltenham Bach Choir, who were positioned in side balconies above the platform, the men to the conductor’s right, the ladies to his left.

At the very start of the piece I thought the orchestra took a little time to settle. There wasn’t as much ambience and mystery in the opening pages of the Introduction as I’d have liked: In particular I thought the playing was a bit loud at times. However, things settled down after three or four minutes and thereafter Altrichter and his players gave a colourful, expressive and bright account of the music. The choir sang well and didn’t seem to be fazed in the slightest by their separation across the hall. Baritone Martin Le Poideven, who was positioned in the front row of the male chorus, projected his short solo strongly and well. The piece ends fairly quietly, as it began, and I thought the closing pages were more effectively done than the start had been in terms of dynamics and atmosphere. One wonders, however, if this orchestra will ever play the piece again: it seems a shame to have learned this fairly big piece for just one performance.

Apart from some chamber works the music of Elgar has been disappointingly absent from the Festival’s programmes, despite this being the 150th anniversary of his birth. However, the performance of his song cycle, Sea Pictures, that formed the centrepiece of this concert made handsome amends. Not long ago I was much taken by a new recording of the work by Sarah Connolly (See Review) so I was eager to hear her give the work live. Happily, all the expectations stemming from that recording were fully met.

Miss Connolly sang quite superbly. She was dramatic where the music required it but also put over the more intimate moments with subtlety. She was helped by a most attentive accompaniment from the orchestra. Whether it was because the work was new to them or because Altrichter had prepared them thoroughly – or, more likely, a combination of the two – the players were obviously watchful and seemed to me not to miss a trick either in terms of dynamic shading or tempo modifications. Altrichter was a most alert accompanist and was clearly “with” his soloist at all times. Such attention to detail by all concerned must be the bedrock for any successful performance of an Elgar work.

Thus, at a fairly broad tempo, ‘Sea Slumber Song’ was extremely atmospheric and conveyed well the mystery of the night. The accompaniment to ‘In Haven’ was delicately touched in and gave marvellous support to Miss Connolly’s lovely singing. We were treated to an elevated performance of ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’, which Miss Connolly delivered with great – but not excessive – expression. This expression was evident at the more inward moments, such as “And kneel, where once I knelt to pray” and equally so at the more extrovert passages, such as “The new sight, the new wondrous sight!” When Miss Connolly got to the memorable line “He shall assist me to look higher” you knew instinctively that this was where the song, and her interpretation of it, had been leading all along. It was a thrilling moment.

‘Where corals lie’ was taken quite briskly, which I liked, especially as the orchestra played so nimbly. Finally ‘The Swimmer’ began most dramatically, with some eager singing from Miss Connolly. The song gained palpably in tension as it progressed until the music became, as it should, exultant at “I would ride as never man has ridden”. Miss Connolly’s last high note was glorious, crowning a splendid and idiomatic interpretation. She knows the work well, of course. All credit to the
Brno players for participating so fully in the success of the performance by giving an excellent account of what was surely, to them, new music. Miss Connolly will be back in Gloucestershire in a couple of weeks to sing The Angel in the Three Choirs Festival performance of The Dream of Gerontius. That’s something to which I’m looking forward keenly.

Having played English music in the first half of the concert the Brno Philharmonic returned after the interval to play music which must be not so much in their blood as part of their genetic makeup: Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony. This neatly picked up the American theme of the Festival while allowing the visitors to show off the music of their native land. Actually, these days one doesn’t really hear an “authentic” Czech sound in the way that we used to experience not so long ago through Supraphon LPs. Gone are the uniquely tangy woodwind timbres, not to mention the Eastern European sound of the brass and horns. It’s all part of the drift towards an increasingly homogenised sound from orchestras worldwide, which is a shame. However, there’s no denying that Czech musicians still bring a special authority to the music of their native land.

Petr Altrichter, this time conducting without a score, inspired urgent and fiery playing in the main allegro of the first movement, in which he omitted the exposition repeat. Though he relaxed somewhat in the quieter passages he never sacrificed pace or tension by so doing. The brass were weighty and packed a punch but he didn’t allow them to get out of control. The orchestra’s account of this movement was full of spirit and energy.

At the very start of the slow movement those quietly majestic brass chords were played with a golden sonority – as they were again at the movement’s close. There was suitable nostalgia in the great cor anglais melody though the tempo was a couple of notches faster than one is accustomed to hearing. The combination of flute and oboe in the second subject was lovely and was followed soon afterwards by some excellent, quietly intense string playing. I enjoyed the way Altrichter kept the music flowing throughout this movement but I wonder how I’d feel about this if I heard it done this way repeatedly through a recording – perhaps a little poetry was lost as a result of the refusal to linger?

The vibrant scherzo was driven along with great purpose, the rhythms crisp. I was a little surprised, however, that the bucolic trio was taken a little more broadly than I expected. Overall, though, this was a properly bracing account of the movement. The playing at the start of the finale displayed real pride and passion. The strings really dug in, inspired no doubt, by the energy of Altrichter’s conducting. The playing was never coarse but the whole movement was projected with huge conviction and excitement. The end of the work, with the Brno brass playing sonorously, was majestic and confident.

The audience responded warmly and I thought we might have been given an encore but after a long and exacting programme the Brno players probably felt they’d earned a rest. Instead, after a final acknowledgement of the applause, we witnessed a charming gesture as the players all shook hands with their neighbouring colleagues before trooping off the stage.

This concert made for a most enjoyable conclusion to the 63rd Cheltenham Festival. I wonder what awaits us next year? All the concerts I’ve attended have been first class and have brightened up an otherwise desperate English “summer” in Gloucestershire. Let’s hope the sun comes out for the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester in two weeks time.


John Quinn 

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