As a performer, there are some works that start sedately, and others that throw you in at the deep end, from the very opening bar. For a soloist this is largely incidental on the night, but when you’re talking of a large orchestra of over eighty members, who, unlike the soloist, will have been sat in situ on stage for at least a few minutes, it can be a slightly different ballgame.
Exciting and challenging
Dvořák’s highly-ebullient ‘Carnival’ Overture, which opened Plymouth Symphony Orchestra’s (PSO) Spring Concert, is truly one of the most exciting of its kind in the repertoire, and challenging to get each and every player on exactly the same wavelength from the very go – blink, and you sink.
Despite the vagaries of the Guildhall’s acoustics, echoes and overtones, all of which can really hamper rhythmic precision and ensemble tautness, the players took remarkably little time to settle, and produced yet another fine performance, full of dynamic contrasts, interplay between both solo instruments and full sections, with scarcely time to breathe, let alone think about it, in a brilliantly-orchestrated symphonic overture, that also encompasses the whole gamut of emotions, while having to maintain the overall ‘carnival’ spirit through to the very end. There were some lovely solo woodwind moments along the way, while brass and horns were able to get in some useful practice for what was yet to come in the second half.
PSO were next joined by Jerusalem-born pianist, Ariel Lanyi, in a performance of Rachmaninov’s evergreen Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Ariel seemed almost self-effacing as he made his way on stage, taking up his position at the piano with the absolute minimum of fuss. But the moment he started, this gentle, unassuming young man really came to life in a scintillating performance which so finely captured every single nuance of the composer’s beautifully-written piano part, as he shot through the variations in the first part of the work. Rachmaninov’s thematic treatment often involves fleeting interchanges between piano and orchestra, and other complex rhythmic interplay, all of which have to be put together, only the night before, when the soloist meets his orchestra for the first of just two occasions.
But watching Ariel in all of these moments where the slightest stumble could spell disaster, the bond between soloist and conductor was absolutely rock-solid, which is the only way it will work – unless the soloist has the luxury of touring the same concerto with the same orchestra for a number of separate performances.
In terms of the piano part, there are three essentials here – the ability to cope with all the runs and rapid finger-work that make the score so challenging, especially when taking into consideration the composer’s Marfan-like hand-size. Secondly, the pianist needs extreme power to deal with the many thundering double-octave passages, usually where the orchestra is going at full pelt, too.
Finally – and nowhere more so than in the ever-glorious eighteenth variation, which, if merely dished up as a side-salad of Hollywood schmaltz, debases the composer’s wonderfully-simple, yet life-changing transformation of Paganini’s much-used little theme. Conversely, though, to treat it as an academic ‘recipe’ – take one theme in a minor key, slow it down considerably, change to a minor-key version, and finally revamp it in a lushly romantic key and setting – would be unthinkable. Needless to say, the Lanyi-Kimber team got it exactly right on the night, significantly enhanced by the truly lush sound of the superb PSO strings.
This was yet another marriage made in heaven, in terms of the patent empathy between orchestra and its visiting soloist, but, immediately following the tongue-in-cheek, throwaway ending, the PSO players erupted into an almost frenzied appreciation of Ariel’s stunning performance, with which, of course, they were inextricably associated. In the short time they had worked together, they had engendered not only a strong musical connection, but there was also a strong sense of having made him feel an honorary PSO family-friend and where, on each and every occasion in the past where this extra bond has prevailed – the final performance is always distinguished by that elusive je ne sais quoi. True, the large audience would have seen this as an enormously effective collaboration on the night, but it equally provides a simultaneous learning-situation for both protagonists in so doing, and just another reason why PSO not only pulls out all the existing stops each time, but also manages to find some new ones, too – surely the absolute raison d’être for any top-notch ‘amateur’ orchestra worth its salt.
While it was felt that the refurbished Steinway had lost some of its unique brightness and sparkle at the top end of the treble, Ariel was still generous enough to play a far lighter Chopin Mazurka as a generous encore for his newly-found Plymouth friends, fellow-musicians, and aficionados, all of whom, quite rightly, were very reluctant to let him leave the stage.
Following such a gripping first half, the second will usually be given over to a major symphonic work, or symphony, ideally to maintain the euphoria following the concerto, which is not always as easy, once the piano has been parked at the back of the stage, and the soloist already on their way back to London.
So which work had Anne Kimber finally come up with for the grand finale? Many symphonies might have fit the bill, for example, those by Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, or indeed by any other well-respected composer of Romantic symphonies.
Off the beaten track
But Anne went for something a little ‘off the beaten track’, as far as PSO, and the vast majority of amateur orchestras go, and a work which they had not performed before – Mahler’s First Symphony. While we all tend to think of Mahler Symphonies as being extremely long, and significantly more challenging for any amateur orchestra to perform,. the reality is quite different, since not only is it the composer’s shortest symphony, taking somewhere between fifty-two and fifty-five minutes to perform, a similar four-movement work like Dvořák’s ‘New World’, is actually some ten minutes or so longer.
Wide range of colours
Yet Mahler’s work still feels altogether bigger, and much of this is down to the instrumental resources he requires. Whereas most romantic symphonies call for four horns, Mahler asks for eight, and also by adding in some slightly less commonly-asked-for wind instruments, the composer, and conductor too, now have complete and homogenous sections to deal with. Voicings and textures can be so much richer-sounding because of the wider range of colours available, even if, initially, it can be something of a veritable logistic nightmare to populate every single part needed.
In an ideal world, for example, where money was no object, a professional harpist would normally be the go-to choice. However, where funds are limited, the usual workaround is to simulate the sound using an electronic keyboard, as was the case here. Unfortunately, perhaps because of its volume setting, it did sound far more like a digital piano using a harp voice, and, on occasions, somewhat compromised the overall orchestral palette it was actually intended to enhance.
But the area that benefits the most from Mahler’s orchestration here is the horn section, where the composer doubles the usual complement of four, to eight players. In real terms, however, this doesn’t actually imply that, doubling the quantity produces twice the volume. For this we can thank Ernst Heinrich Weber – no, not the composer – for the eponymous law of 1834, part of which deals specifically with the perception of changes in loudness. Simply put, if there were nine violins playing the first-violin part, and you wanted any noticeable increase in loudness, it would require the addition of three more players to achieve this.
Notwithstanding this little bit of psycho-acoustics, what did the eight horns of the PSO actually sound like on the night? Stunning, spectacular, striking, and superb, are all adjectives that immediately come to mind, especially as their overall accuracy-level was certainly in the high nineties – a veritable ‘force majeure’ on the night.
Overall, there were many lovely movements, where woodwind, brass and strings – led, with real authority by school Deputy Head Dave Adams – took centre stage, variously as soloists, or in absolutely mind-blowing orchestral tuttis. The harp has already been covered, but the addition of at least one, if not two double basses, might have provided greater support at the bottom end, thereby spreading the load more evenly for the three stalwart bassists already on board.
Everyone gave their absolute all on the night and no one more so than conductor Anne Kimber who, while looking like she’d just run the London Marathon by the end, equally seemed up for at least a few more laps. And with PSO, it is always so rewarding to see the mutual affection and respect between players and their conductor, which is just another reason why PSO is such an impressive outfit that just seems to deliver each and every time.
But let me conclude with the following dictionary definition: ‘a person or thing of very great strength, intellect, or importance’.
Some modern performances of the First Symphony give the work the title, ‘Titan’ – the proper noun in the definition above. In truth, the composer used this label only for the second and third performances, and never after the work had reached its definitive four-movement form in 1896. However, it would still seem churlish not to concede that there are definitely ‘Titan’ elements throughout the work in its final form.
But, on this occasion there was only one true ‘Titan’, and that title could go only to Anne Kimber, for what she and her fellow-artists achieved on what was a truly memorable night.
If you missed this concert, then do consider adding Wednesday June 21, 2023 to your diary, when PSO returns to the city. But, because of the proposed Guildhall refurbishment, the next concert will take place in the nearby Minster Church of St Andrew at 7.30pm, which, of course, means no piano concerto on the programme.
However, true to form, Anne has come up with ‘A Night at the Opera’, to include music by Puccini, Verdi, Bizet, and others – with soloists Elin Pritchard (soprano), and Peter Van Hulle (tenor). The same programme will also be given on Sunday June 18, in the Public Hall, Liskeard, starting at the earlier time of 5.30pm.
Philip R Buttall
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