Saturday 28 June 2014

Salomon Orchestra in Panufnik, Dvorak and Stravinsky

Salomon Orchestra at their 50th Anniversary concert
The Salomon Orchestra at their
50th anniversary concert at St John's
This year's centenary celebrations for Andrzej Panufnik are provoking something of a reassessment. But the centenary has not called for quite such a torrent of Panufnik's large scale works, so it was pleasing to encounter his Sinfonia Sacra at a concert by the enterprising Salomon Orchestra at St Johns Smith Square on Wednesday 25 June 2014. The Salomon Orchestra is one of London's best non-professional orchestras and they can often go where others fear to tread. For this concert they teamed up Panufnik's symphony with Stravinsky's early Fireworks and Dvorak's finest symphony, the Symphony No. 8. All under the watchful and enthusiastic baton of Robin Newton.

Stravinsky's Fireworks, written in 1908 looks both back and forward. We can hear in it both Stravinsky's teacher Rimsky Korsakov (who died just as it was completed) and the Stravinsky to come; hearing Fireworks persuaded Diaghilev to commission a new piece from Stravinsky, the rest is history! It is a busy and outrageous four minutes of fun with a large orchestra, and the Salomon Orchestra responded with elan.

Panufnik's Sinfonia Sacra combines his love of structures and devices with his emotionalism in a way which makes it one of his most approachable and successful of his large scale works (he wrote 10 symphonies in all). The work opens with three short movements, Visions. The first a fanfare for four trumpets, the second a quiet closely atmospheric piece for strings, the third for full orchestra. Each explores a different aspect of Panufnik's chosen theme, an ancient Polish hymn which was both a prayer and battle cry. All the music had the lovely major/minor uncertainty which Panufnik loved. The final movement presented the full hymn, starting high on violins and gradually building with Panufnik layering elements from each of the preceding movements on top of each other to reach a dazzling (and loud) climax.

The piece clearly stretched the orchestra, the violins opened the last movement with a passage in harmonics and the trumpet parts lie very high. But the orchestra responded magnificently, and under Newton's persuasive direction really brought the work to life, filling its symbolic structures with heart and emotion.

The final work on the programme was Dvorak's Symphony no. 8 written in 1889 and representing a return to more Czech themed material after the highly Brahmsian sixth and seventh symphonies. In many ways, the work is Dvorak at his most imaginative. The opening movement showed the cellos off to fine effect in the stirring motto theme, which returned on trumpets at the turbulent hight of the development. The slow movement showed off some fine solos from leader Tara Persaud and the flutes. The movement demonstrated Dvorak's skill at creating bewitching multi-layered textures with each layer a fascinating musical ideal in itself. (Something which makes his 1900 opera Rusalka rather special). The third movement sounds like a waltz but is in fact a Czech triple time dance. The Salomon Orchestra perform it with a stylish and infectious swing. Finally the last movement showcased the cellos again, highly suave here.

Robin Newton, conducting the symphony from memory, drew a fine grained and beautifully controlled performance from the orchestra, but one which was full of the sprung rhythms of Dvorak's Czech roots too.

The orchestra continues in Czech mode for its autumn concert when Philip Hesketh conducts them in Dvorak's Cello Concerto (with Guy Johnston) and Suk's Asrael Symphony at St John's Smith Square on 14 October 2014.

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