After a prolonged period of restrictions, what a joy it was to experience this wonderful performance by the Shrewsbury Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday, 17th November . Under the superb direction of their conductor John Moore (and sensitively led by Alex Postlethwaite), the orchestra delighted a full, and most appreciative, audience.
The concert opened with the overture to a three-act opera entitled ‘The Wreckers’ by Dame Ethel Smyth. This opera was composed to a libretto in French by Henry Bennett Brewster (no relation), was set in a Cornish fishing village in the eighteenth century and premiered on 11th November, 1906, in the Neues Theater, Leipzig. It was refreshing to hear an overture which, I suspect, not many of the audience (including myself) had heard before and which cleverly evoked the wild seascape off the Southwest of the British Isles, with powerful dramatic moments in addition to a memorable lilting melodic theme.
Next there was a performance of Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Opus 85. This was Elgar’s last notable work and is a cornerstone of the cello repertoire. Composed in the aftermath of the First World War after a disastrous 1919 premier (due to the orchestra being under-prepared), the piece did not achieve popularity until 1960 when it was recorded by Jacqueline du Pré and the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli.
Cellist Graham Walker began the work in impressive style, supported sensitively by the string section. The impressive five-strong double bass section added subtle depth without overwhelming the soloist. The woodwind and brass were equally well-balanced in the early stages, and the full orchestra belied its size with careful handling of the precise interjections so typical of Elgar’s orchestration. Graham’s interpretation of this beautiful piece was masterful throughout and he was warmly applauded by an enthusiastic audience.
The interval was a friendly affair. Due to the pandemic, the usual organised refreshments were not permitted, of course, so folk chatted and brought out flasks, drinks and cakes - celebrating their return to relative normality. For many it was strange to be with ‘all those people’ again!
Then it was ‘down to business’ with the main work:
Symphony No. 2 in D major Op. 73 by Johannes Brahms was composed in the summer of 1877 during a visit to Pörtschach am Wörthersee, a lakeside resort town in the Austrian area of Carinthia. (Incidentally, Pörtschach is now the site of an annual international Johannes Brahms festival.)
After a quiet opening statement from the upper woodwind and horns (later joined by the violins), the timpani and low brass herald brief solos from the clarinet and oboe, leading to a beautiful rising melody from the first violins, and then to a glorious legato melody heard for the first time in the cellos, and harmonised by the violas. The full orchestra continued to elaborate on the subject matter, pushing ever onward and becoming more agitated. Later in the movement there is a return to the opening horn statement, the music becomes more contrapuntal, the woodwind and brass build to a climax, trombones join in and a plaintive oboe melody is heard. The previous themes return, and the brass and horns set the calm mood again for the return of ‘that breathtaking cello melody’ one more time before the gentle conclusion.
The second movement is Adagio - a complete contrast with cellos to the fore again. There are many powerful moments with fine playing from the upper woodwind, ably supported by the horns. The strings created a beautiful texture, full of pathos.
Movement three begins with a gentle waltz melody played by the oboe, with a distinctive grace note at the end of each of the first two bars. There was some lovely playing from the soloists, carefully supported by their respective seconds, with sensitive phrasing and articulation throughout. As the metre changes to a fast paced presto, the strings are required to play with precision and in places play cross-rhythms where three and two are intertwined. The gentle waltz returns and ends the movement.
The final movement was a powerhouse of total concentration, not least of which was the impressive bow discipline from the combined string sections: worthy of a professional orchestra. Every member had their heads down, driving the movement forward, with many beautiful moments before the piece was brought to its climactic conclusion.
Congratulations to all involved in making the evening an enjoyable and memorable one. Here’s to many more!