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Orchestra of the Swan Birmingham Town Hall ????? .....

THIS country seems to have a tradition of producing great cellists, and among the latest of these is Laura van der Heijden, BBC Young Musician winner in 2012.

In this well-attended matinee, she gave us Tchaikovsky's Variations On A Rococo Theme, her virtuosity so effectively understated in the service of expressiveness.

Her wonderful on-loan Hill instrument radiates with maroon-coloured tones, and the orchestral timbres from the Orchestra of the Swan, not least the chattering woodwind refrain, complemented them well.

The fluid give-and-take between soloist and orchestra was confident, Webber's conducting mentorly attentive to van der Heijden. This was a lovely account of what must be admitted is not one of Tchaikovsky's masterpieces.

And the work is an obvious homage to Mozart, whose music framed this programme. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik had zingy outer movements, affectionately phrased, while the Romanze was given with an attention to detail and articulation which gave this often dismissed movement genuine status.

Finally we came to the awesome Symphony No.40, the G minor, which has so often plodded along with full symphonic forces doggedly mindful of its stature as one of the world's greatest symphonies. No plodding here: Webber's tempi were absolutely right, his clarity of texture refreshing, and the winds, not least the splendid horns, added detail we don't always hear.

Christopher Morley Bach's St John Passion Ex Cathedra at Symphony Hall ????? ..... COMPARING the only two Bach Passions to survive intact, the St John is virtually half the length of the St Matthew, the one compact and dramatic, the other luxuriantly reflective.

But Jeffrey Skidmore made a full Good Friday afternoon out of Ex Cathedra's performance of the St John by recreating the circumstances of Good Friday Vespers in Bach's own Church of St Thomas in Leipzig. These involved organ improvisations and chorale preludes, sympathetically and appropriately delivered here by Alexander Mason, congregational hymns, and a sermon, here represented by Jill Robinson's sensitive reading from Ben Okri's "Is time exhausted?" Proceedings were topped and tailed with motets, ending with the traditional funeral Ecce quomodo moritur justus by Jacob Handl. But we had begun with the premiere of Alec Roth's Verlass Uns Nicht, setting the atmosphere perfectly, leading us directly into the Bach to follow, and its plangent dissonances reaching timelessly down the centuries.

And so into the Bach, rustling, urgent and pulsating, Skidmore, the remarkable baroque orchestra, Ex Cathedra and other vocal groups constantly alert to the shifting textures and timbres of this gripping work.

Choristers sang with the agility of instrumentalists, the orchestra produced a range of colours which the doubled forces of the St Matthew actually don't find, and the soloists projected with involvement and security, even in Bach's most larynx-twisting writing.

We were all on our feet to sing the concluding "Now thank we all our God". What a cunning way for Jeffrey Skidmore to ensure a standing ovation.

Christopher Morley

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 20, 2017
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