Plymouth Symphony Orchestra with Alexander Ullman (inset)

PSO create musical fireworks and Alexander Ullman shows the panache of his immense pianist power at Plymouth Guildhall (review)

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Plymouth Symphony Orchestra with Alexander Ullman (piano)
Plymouth Guildhall

If Saint Cecilia – patron saint of music and musicians – was up there watching a live streaming of Plymouth Symphony Orchestra’s (PSO) latest concert, which took place appropriately enough on her annual saint’s feast day, I’m sure she would have been really delighted with what she saw, and heard.

Before even a note was played, she would have picked up on the fact that there was a sizeable audience present and on a night when it was raining heavily. More so, she would have been really pleased to see a good number of young people among them – and not just the ones who came along in the past when given a free ticket, where the programme was decidedly more easy-listening, like movie themes, and when they’d probably been promised a Big Mac stop-off on the way home. No, conductor Anne Kimber has realised for some time now that, if you make a programme popular, then you’re always more likely to get a good response – and with relatively little professional classical music visiting the city apart from opera companies, this becomes even more crucial.

Another sure-fire audience-winner is to include a visiting professional soloist in a concerto, especially for piano or violin. Yes, it would be great to do this every time, and when support is good – as was the case last night – PSO will be able to bring back violinist Ben Baker next March, following his superb performance of the Lark Ascending here, almost a year ago to the day – no doubt tonight’s soloist, too.

A full-blooded rendition of Borodin’s Prince Igor Overture got things off to a great start, where powerful full-orchestra moments, particularly with the brass involved, contrasted well with those of real sensitivity from the woodwind, and all compellingly supported by the orchestra’s undoubted best asset – its string section. Here, even though the basses were down to two, there was still sufficient weight at the bottom end to carry the full weight of the harmony above. Percussion, too, made its telling contribution throughout.

Serving as a fine aperitif to the concerto to come, Albinoni’s hauntingly-beautiful Adagio received a fine performance in the hands of the evening’s leader Dawn Ashby. PSO have an admirable plan in place whereby there are effectively three lead-violinists, who take it in turns to act in that capacity in a kind of rota situation. This not only keeps everyone on their toes, but also provides some variety in the way the conductor’s intentions are conveyed to what is the backbone of any orchestra. Dawn played with heartfelt, simple sincerity, displaying a rich and full-bodied tone, and unrelenting consistency in terms of intonation. Along with the sympathetic string backing, Paul Foster made a very effective use of an electronic keyboard to mimic the original organ accompaniment, providing strong and realistic support which never overpowered the soloist, in a reading which was tasteful, but never simply mawkish.

London-born pianist Alexander Ullman joined the orchestra for the concerto – in fact a concertante work for piano and orchestra, rather than a fully-fledged concerto on this occasion. But if this might have suggested an easier option, then a quick glance at the piano score of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini would soon dispel that myth. Even from the work’s simply-conceived opening, it was clear that there were soon going to be fireworks galore as Alexander started to get into the swing of these twenty-four variations which comprise Rachmaninov’s brilliant showpiece for virtuoso pianist and where, it must be said, the orchestra doesn’t get let off that lightly either.

Alexander dealt with every death-defying difficulty with great panache, totally confident in his immense pianist powers, which saw him make light work of the composer’s bristling technical difficulties. From the rapid, scalic passages, to the glorious warmth and emotion of the famous central slow-section, Alexander’s performance was frankly as good as you’re ever likely to hear with eminently more prestigious orchestra and not just in UK venues. Anne Kimber did an absolutely stalwart job in holding everything together, and ensuring that the soloist was rarely, if ever, overwhelmed by the orchestra. An immediate well-deserved standing ovation from all present clearly showed what the audience thought, and Alex had also, meanwhile won over the hearts of the orchestra during the relatively short rehearsal time available. To reward his listeners – both behind him on stage and in the hall – as an encore Alexander generously obliged with Liszt’s own take on Paganini’s Twenty-fourth Caprice, another fiendishly difficult piece, especially after the exigencies of the Rachmaninov that had just preceded it.

On paper at least, the second half looked to be something of an anti-climax, given that Brahms’s Second Symphony isn’t his most dramatic, and is essentially sunny, to the degree that it has been described as his ‘Pastoral Symphony’, something that wouldn’t generally apply to his output. As more of a classical romantic, though, there is still more than enough music to get your teeth into, but you do have to bite a little more deeply into it – something that wouldn’t really be the case with a Tchaikovsky symphony, where you can just sit back and let the swathe of tunes and their lavish orchestration simply wash over you.

Nonetheless, Anne and her players strove to find the inner music in Brahms’s Second Symphony and, while the performance wasn’t technically unflawed, the essential nuances of the composer’s score were still conveyed effectively.

PSO continues to do a tremendous job in making good-quality symphonic repertoire available in an area where no large professional ensemble seems to tread. Without them we wouldn’t have heard the likes of Alexander Ullmann, or any of the other soloists who have played with them in the past – at least without making a forty-five mile trip up the A38, that is.

Plymouth audiences remain very much indebted to the players’ dedication and expertise, and, most of all, to PSO conductor Anne Kimber, not only for her choice of programme and artists, but more so for her ongoing enthusiasm and drive on the concert platform itself.

Philip R Buttall





Philip Buttall

Philip Buttall

Philip R Buttall was the Classical Music Writer at Plymouth Herald from 1997-2017. He is a sought-after piano teacher, composer and arranger, and online concert and CD reviewer. Further information and contact details are available at www.philiprbuttall.co.uk
Philip Buttall

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