Conductor: Garry Walker
Soloist: Guy Johnston
Triumph over Tragedy, like most of the names that get attached to symphony concerts, is a touch over the top, but by no means totally inappropriate to either the situation or the programme. The return of orchestral music to Huddersfield Town Hall found the Orchestra of Opera North in superb form under the company’s new Music Director, Garry Walker.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto from 1919 is certainly a response to tragedy, the First World War, though the mood is more often elegiac than triumphant. It’s had a strange history: neglected and under-rated for many years, it started coming to public notice with the advocacy of Pablo Casals and that famous du Pre/Barbirolli recording in 1965. Now it is almost too familiar and it takes a top-class live performance to remind us of the restrained passion, emotional depth and melodic appeal of the work.
Guy Johnston’s eloquence as an interpreter of the concerto was never in doubt from the opening other-worldly melody. At his most expressive in the poignant Adagio, he lost nothing of the precision and delicacy of the second movement or the occasional assertiveness of the finale. The orchestra, discreet but incisive, provided the ideal accompaniment and relished the occasional dramatic climaxes.
They might have been just limbering up for Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony which exploded into the concert hall as it should. This wonderful work miraculously combines the obvious with the ambiguous. That stomping, pounding last movement march – is it for real? That early spacious string melody – is it serene or is it bleak?
In 1937 Shostakovich was out of favour with the Soviet authorities who looked for a touch more conformity from their great composers, so he produced what he called “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism”, if it really was Shostakovich who penned those words. There are simple melodies (very good simple melodies), but what he does to them is always exciting and not infrequently menacing. There is a sort of mechanised rejoicing in the finale, but do the reflective passages undermine it? Is it obedience or satire? Either way, hearing it in the concert hall is a riveting experience.
Walker guided the orchestra expertly through those mighty crescendos that suddenly grow from hushed strings and then die away just as suddenly; the orchestra showed off its solo power in the fun of the Scherzo; and the brass and percussion battered us into submission in a breath-taking final movement.
The concert opened with Benjamin Britten’s seldom heard last orchestral work, the Suite on English Folk Tunes, A Time There Was. Its neglect is hard to fathom. Though based on ten folk tunes, there is nothing particularly folksy about the orchestration except for the charming pipe and tabor effect at the start of Hankin Booby, and the mood is often surprisingly boisterous for a composition by a man who knew he would not recover from his heart condition. Only the dying fall of the cor anglais solo in Lord Melbourne reveals the underlying melancholy.
A sense of a new beginning after the various lockdowns with a new Music Director (an equally new Principal Guest Conductor, Antony Hermus, conducts the next concert) is reinforced by the programming of a short one-minute commission by a young composer at each concert. Jay Capperauld’s Deep in their Roots prefaced the Shostakovich symphony, moving from jaunty syncopation to a developing motor rhythm in its brief span.
Reviewed on September 23rd 2021