After his customary informal and light-hearted introduction, conductor Geoff Keating launched the orchestra into the least familiar work on the menu, the overture to Smetana’s comic opera The Two Widows. This was a bustling piece, full of the character of the polka, which all the sections were able to get their teeth into; it had good rhythmic drive, and the fugal section for the strings towards the end, which provided a few moments of calm contrast, was beautifully delivered. I did have some minor concerns about the balance in this item – it might be worth considering slightly raising the woodwind section above the strings. However, these concerns diminished as the evening went on, so it might just have been a case of the players taking time to adjust to the particular acoustic of the hall.
Leoš Janáček is one of the most fascinating and original of composers, but to those more familiar with the angular, jagged writing of some of his operas and more familiar orchestral works, the three early Lachian Dances may have come as something of a surprise. Still with touches of originality, such as the high string figuration, these colourful arrangements of Moravian folk dances bear some comparison with Dvořák’s better known Slavonic Dances, probably through their shared musical heritage. They were well characterised by Geoff Keating and the orchestra, who clearly enjoyed playing them, and applied a lovely light, deft touch to them: there was some particularly fine horn playing in the second dance, well supported by the other wind instruments, and the transition to the return of the opening section at the end of the third dance was superbly executed. The interplay between individual instruments and the sections clearly showed the rapport that exists between these players.
The first half concluded with Dvořák’s The Noon Witch, one of a set of tone poems completed late in his career which, inexplicably, have a much lower profile than some of his other works. As musical story-telling goes there are few better examples than this little masterpiece, and the orchestra clearly revelled in the demands of its colourful orchestration. The haunting opening clarinet solo, which frequently returns, was beautifully delivered, and the whole woodwind section were clearly having a ball, typified by the bass clarinet and bassoon duet representing the evil witch. They were ably supported by the strings, who attacked firmly and precisely, but who also managed to provide some extraordinarily atmospheric and unsettling effects in contrast. The work built to a strong climax, resolving into the striking of twelve noon on the tubular bells. This grisly tale was imaginatively well told indeed.
If I had left at half-time I would have been well-satisfied, but as often happens at Solway Sinfonia concerts, the best was yet to come. Dvořák’s Cello Concerto may be something of an old war-horse, but it still packs a formidable punch and remains one of the finest concertos ever written for any instrument. For me this was possibly the best concerto performance I have heard from the orchestra, the accompaniment sympathetic and supportive, yet extrovert and powerful where it needed to be. Soloist Kirsten Jenson was quite delightful: she had complete technical control throughout, communicated closely with the conductor, and was obviously fully aware of everything going on around her – her duet passage with leader Sarah Berker in the third movement was almost chamber music-making. Kirsten’s was a lyrical performance, aided by a lovely singing tone which conveyed so well the yearning, nostalgic, quality that pervades the work. Throughout she was matched by some excellent instrumental playing, such as the horn solo in the opening movement. The highlight for this listener was the slow movement, where there was complete unity between soloist and orchestra, and in which the woodwind and cello sections in particular shone: the wistful mood created by everyone was quite touching. Above all the performance was characterised by orchestral precision, most notably in the climaxes at the end of the outer movements.
In his spoken introduction at the start of the concert Geoff Keating pointed out the limited practice time available to the orchestra. To put on a programme of this technical difficulty on just five rehearsals must be a daunting challenge. That Geoff and the players brought it off so convincingly is a tribute to their hard work and commitment. Fabulous programme, very well played – winter blues temporarily despatched!