Thursday 9 February 2017

Rebecca Miller and the Salomon Orchestra takes us on an Hungarian excursion

Rebecca Miller - Photo Credit: Richard Haughton
Rebecca Miller
Photo Credit: Richard Haughton
Liszt Les Preludes, Kodaly Peacock Variations, Bartok Concerto for Orchestra; Salomon Orchestra, Rebecca Miller; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 7 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Hungarian showpieces full of impressive energy and commitment

The Salomon Orchestra's first concert of 2017, at St John's Smith Square on Tuesday 7 February was something of an excursion to Hungary. Rebecca Miller conducted the orchestra conducted the orchestra in Liszt's Les Preludes, Kodaly's Peacock Variations and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

The orchestra, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013, is non-professional and is fearless in its choice of repertoire, with both the Kodaly and Bartok being celebrated as orchestral showpieces. In her spoken introduction, conductor Rebecca Miller celebrated the orchestra's very particular skills, enthusiasm and dedication.

Though born in Hungary, Liszt was from a German speaking family and his music very much partook of the standard Austro-German musical climate. Les Preludes is one of a group of tone poems which Liszt wrote, a genre which he virtually invented. The atmospheric opening did rather expose the string section of the orchestra, but as soon as Liszt ramped up the tension the players created their familiar strong, very present sound, despite some fearsome passagework require of the first violins. Miller got a terrific sense of energy from the players, reaching a really noisy climax.

2017 is the 50th anniversary of Kodaly's death. His Peacock Variations, based on a Hungarian folk-song which speaks of nationalism and liberation, were in fact written for the 50th anniversary of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, where the work was premiered in 1959.

After a darkly intriguing statement of the melody on cellos and basses, Kodaly gives us 16 variations and an extended finale. Quite a few of the variations are short, and though Kodaly does group them in larger structures, part of the trick of the work is to give each variation a distinct character. And there was much to enjoy, the musicians really committing to the music, so that even the quieter passages were very present. This is, of course, Hungarian music so rhythm is important, and Miller drew playing of vivid energy from the players, She is a very visual conductor, at one point almost dancing on the podium to encourage the players.

Here the strings impressed with the lovely sweep of the phrasing of the big moments, and ravishing textures in the slower ones. Kodaly produces some intriguingly exotic orchestrations, which enabled the players to give individual variations a particular colour, and we had some superb wind solos. A finely committed and vivid performance, this was a much a show piece as the Bartok.

Bartok wrote his Dance Suite in 1923, but for the following 20 years he was content to use the orchestra in an accompanying role in concert works in concertos and cantatas. Only with his late masterpiece, Concerto for Orchestra, the result of a commission from Koussevitzky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, did Bartok return to writing a concert work of symphonic proportions.

The work opened with another cello introduction, here with wisps of Bartokian night-music surrounding it. Miller drew a terrific sense of anticipation in the build-up to the Allegro vivace which went with a great swing. There was commitment, energy and a great sense of contrast between the bit moments and the quieter, more intense and concentrated episodes.

The game of couples in the second movement gave us witty bassoons, perky, chattering oboes, sly clarinets, graceful, neo-classical flutes and surprisingly suave brass in a very characterful movement, with touches of pawky humour and nice rhythmic lift. The slow movement elegy started highly evocative with nicely transparent textures, but there was something eerie and unnerving about this night music too, and the climactic moments had a searing intensity to them, certainly a disturbing night.

The intermezzo had a sly charm to it, with a warmth to the string tone in the sweeping passages, but there was sheer energy and clear enjoyment in Bartok's interrupting raspberries. Miller took the finale at a terrific speed, the orchestra responding with busy energy and the music almost seemed to fall over itself at times, but the control and concentrated power of the orchestra was impressive.

Elsewhere on this blog:

  • Dark doings in the basement: Menotti's The Medium from Magnetic Opera - opera review
  • Music of a forgotten master: Daniel Grimwood in piano music by Adolf von Henselt - CD review
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