If we look for an overarching theme in the programme, we may find it as an exploration of the psychological condition of the individual, whether heroic or otherwise, as represented in a series of dramatic scenes. Fittingly, we began with Beethoven, since the colossus of Bonn cast a long shadow across the rest of the pieces – sometimes in influence or technique (for example, in his creation of the ‘Overture’ genre), but primarily in his pioneering view of music as an outward expression of self-consciousness.
The ‘Coriolan’ Overture is vintage Beethoven: rugged C minor, full of violent contrasts, with syncopations and jagged lines that need strong and accurate playing. The orchestra came off the starting blocks with a bang, splendidly portraying the gradual collapse of the great soldier’s initial resolution in the face of lyrical contradictions, until his final tragic end.
From gloom to green, and our hero enjoyed a wholly different mood with Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring: a distant extension of the lilting pastoral idyll explored by Beethoven in his Symphony No 6, birdsong and all (a word of praise here for the deft clarinet cuckoo in a nest of nicely-balanced string chords). As a consequence, a subsidiary theme began to emerge from the programme – what we might call the ‘rustic’. But this was left behind for a while in Chaminade’s Concertino for Flute, in which the Sinfonia’s chairman Nick Riley, fleet of finger and breath, took the part of hero as virtuoso – sophisticated, witty, supremely accomplished and altogether charming.
Double bassoons and their sixteen feet of tubing usually spend life lending gravitas to the wind sections of their orchestras. Occasionally they catch the limelight, but their roles tend to the bizarre (understudying whales; grunting in Turkish marches) or sinister (beware the Grand Inquisitor!). But to honour the Sinfonia’s bassoonist and treasurer Peter Hutchison, proud owner of a contrafagotto, Geoff Keating had written a new piece entitled Love Song of A Lonely Man. They were joined by narrator David Sumner, who declaimed poetic lamentations of alienation and frustration, while the contrafagotto – the Lonely Man’s ‘id’ – and orchestra reflected on the turbulent state of his inner life. Geoff modestly called it ‘magpie music’, with its allusions to Debussy, Walton, Wagner and Schoenberg. But for this reviewer, Beethoven’s brooding presence was inescapable: the Lonely Man’s recurrent leitmotif of an anxious little semiquaver figure brought to mind a similar subterranean interjection in the String Quartet Op 131.
The second premiere of the evening was ‘The Tempest’ Overture by Czech/Orcadian composer Geraldine Mucha, the score of which had been prepared by Helen Keating from manuscripts. Here, surely, was Prospero as the powerful central figure: magus and magician, overseeing storms, dances and amorous encounters before relaxing, his life’s work complete, into tranquillity, fulfilment and peace. How different from Coriolan’s tragic conclusion, where the stillness is that of the grave. The rustic sub-theme popped up in cheerful peasant dances, contrasting blithely with whistling wind and crashing waves. Our audience, which included relatives, friends and supporters of Mucha, plus the Czech Consul-General, heard the orchestra tackling some demanding passages with courage and gusto.
So to the final piece, when we returned to the Viennese classics – Haydn’s Symphony No 104. This time the sexagenarian Haydn himself was the hero: distinguished elder statesman of music, most famous living composer, at the very top of his game. No introspection for him – heaven forfend! – but the symphony is a miracle of skill, balance, wit and craftsmanship: creating then confounding expectations, establishing then subverting preconceptions, astounding us with compositional mastery. It was especially good to hear the first movement’s exposition repeated, exactly as Haydn prescribed. Every so often the rustic sub-theme erupted at full blast, with galumphing folk dances and drone basses. A delight to hear, but also to play: the orchestra revelled in this music’s sheer joie de vivre, and if some detail was occasionally lost in the rough and tumble of adventurous tempi, that mattered little, especially given several fine individual contributions (well done those French horns!). And Beethoven? As Haydn’s pupil – briefly – he ungraciously claimed to have learned nothing; but it is impossible to believe that his own marvellous technique would not have been shaped by the older man’s extraordinary powers of motivic development.
All in all, an evening of striking contrasts, in which our shape-shifting hero journeyed from darkness into light, taking in some fascinating diversions on the way. The well-deserved plaudits for the Sinfonia were loud and long!
NH 23 March 2015.