ConcertMusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

Swedish Philharmonia – Leeds Town Hall

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Conductor: Jaime Martin

Violin Soloist: Viktoria Mullova

The Swedish Philharmonia is the name adopted by the Gavle Symphony Orchestra for its foreign tours. On the evidence of this concert under its principal conductor, Jaime Martin, the Gavle Symphony is a remarkably accomplished orchestra to emerge from such a modestly sized city: Gavle has a population of less than 100,000.

The orchestral pieces that began and ended the concert are among the less well known works of extremely popular composers. When we think of Tchaikovsky’s Shakespearean fantasies, Romeo and Juliet is the first to spring to mind, The Tempest less so. Described as a “symphonic fantasy after Shakespeare”, it was the successor to Romeo and Juliet and bears some similarity to it: the love music for Miranda and Ferdinand echoes that for Romeo and Juliet, though not, in truth, as memorable. The work operates on a palindromic structure, beginning and ending with the sea and working inwards to a bold characterisation of Ariel and Caliban. Under Martin the orchestra delivered a vivid account of an often impressionistic score.

However, it was with the concluding piece that the orchestra really proved its quality. For some reason Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 (Reformation) has never enjoyed the popularity of his Italian and Scottish symphonies, but it’s a wonderful work and was expressively conducted by Martin and superbly played by the Swedish Philharmonia.

Even its number is an oddity. The second of Mendelssohn’s symphonies to be written, it was greeted with such indifference, even hostility, that he abandoned it and it was finally the fifth of his symphonies to be published, 21 years after his death. Written to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Confession of Augsburg which established the Protestant Reformation, it’s only loosely programmatic, but is more or less a musical portrait of the struggle and triumph of Luther’s Reformation.

One of the early criticisms of the symphony was that it lacked melody, an absurd comment on any work by Mendelssohn, though, ironically, the most memorable melody was not by him – Martin Luther’s great hymn tune, Ein feste burg ist unser Gott. After the end of the brief introductory third movement, an extended flute cadenza, beautifully played by Julia Crowell, eased into the first statement of the hymn tune by the woodwinds before the final triumphant outbursts, with the three trombones prominent – the brass and woodwind sections were in impressive form throughout the symphony.

The Reformation is, in fact, a symphony of enormous variety, despite the underlying theme: from the dignified brass sonorities of the introduction to the tension and cross-currents of the main section of the first movement to the gently dancing diversion of the second movement before the third movement’s doubts and hesitations are blown away by the glorious resolution.

Between the two major orchestral works Viktoria Mullova brought supreme artistry and unforced eloquence to her performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Beginning very simply with an almost folky melody for solo violin, the concerto is relatively understated until the driving energy of the third movement. Mullova brought out the dream-like qualities of the central Andante (some fine clarinet in the accompaniment) and exploited all the insistent rhythmic qualities of the Finale with the aid of assorted percussion including, bizarrely but totally effectively, the use of castanets.

Reviewed on March 7th 2020

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