Congleton Town Hall is 150 years old this year and it has probably never heard anything quite like the concert given by the Harvestehude Symphony Orchestra and Congleton Choral Society last Friday night (20th May).
The Harvestehude Symphony, directed by Harish Shankar, hails from Hamburg, Germany, and is on a UK tour. The packed town hall was treated to a wonderful evening of music. The concert began with Handel's Coronation Anthem My Heart is Inditing, in which the orchestra were joined by our very own Congleton Choral Society. The choir were fresh from their triumph performing Elgar's Dream of Gerontius at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and the confidence that this must have brought to the members shone through. Their account of Handel's music for the Coronation of George II and Queen Caroline in 1727 was radiant. All parts were heard clearly and diction was admirable.
Of particular note was the young and soaring sound produced by the sopranos. A wonderful chocolate-smooth and broad tone was delivered by the altos, a section of the choir that is really on form. Congleton can be very proud of such a great choir and we look forward to their next offering in the Town Hall on 23rd July, when their Grand Anniversary Concert will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the hall, which boasts an enviable acoustic.
The most deeply felt music of the evening followed, with a rendition by the Harvestehude Symphony and cellist Jakob Stepp of Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B Minor. Dvorak was greatly admired by Brahms, who said after hearing this work, "It is beautiful, and if I had realised one could write a concerto like this for the cello, I would have done so myself!"
Stepp is a tender 25-year-old from Stuttgart and equals Harish Shankar in musical talent and communication. From the start he was focused, lost in the moment and delivering every phrase, idea and musical argument with conviction and truth. The opening movement was impressive and well balanced by Shankar and his players, who are as good at listening and accommodating a soloist as they are at giving of their own sound.
The second movement, however, was something very special indeed. This adagio was given with such intensity and beauty that the whole hall was held enwrapped in enchantment; a spell woven by a special player exploring some amazing music. The intense lyrical theme of this slow movement is said by some to be a requiem for the composer's sister who died during its composition. By others it is said to be a love letter to one of Dvorak's violin pupils, and when the theme is sung out by cello and solo violin in the finale of the piece, it is perhaps clear that it is as much about the loss of love as the loss of life. This is only a short reverie in an otherwise exuberant finale, full of ideas. Stepp's technique was a match for the whole piece and he pulled off the finale with great verve. It is often stated that this cello concerto has problems of balance between soloist and orchestra, but these players seemed to have sorted it out, to the great pleasure of all in the hall.
The second half of the concert featured a performance by the talented Hamburgers of Brahms' Symphony No.1 in C Minor. This is a young orchestra and the almost 70 strong ensemble got off to an unsure and hesitant start. Harish Shankar, who directed without a score, soon pulled things together and the first movement gave a solid and forceful statement of intent, as Brahms surely intended. Shankar is a young musician with bags of talent and a wonderful gift for communication. A smile and a gentle gesture brings a glorious silvery tone from his strings. He is able to bring out the inner voices of the lower strings and give his woodwind, horns and brass sections the space to breath and shape their contributions.
The second movement 'Andante sostenuto' was a revelation. Shankar extended the long string phrases and varied their delivery, whilst allowing the oboe 'shepherd's pipe' solo to soar. The effect was to change the musically rigorous and formal Brahms into something more akin to a Pastoral Fantasy. Truly wonderful!
The tricky third movement Allegretto was handled by these players with aplomb and we were left wondering what they could do with the glorious finale. They did not disappoint. An air of expectancy and tension was created from the start and whilst the tendency for Brahms' music to sometimes feel like being repeatedly hit over the head by a highly intellectual brick was not quite assuaged, the orchestra delivered the horn calls like a siren of love, the emphatic Allegro theme like a plea for certain hope and the brass heavy coda like a cry of triumph.
The orchestra and chorus combined for a final encore of Parry's I was Glad. Parry was a gifted composer and a huge influence on English music at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. He idolised Brahms, but unfortunately, as evidenced by the piece, was no match for his idol in orchestration. However, the players let rip, as did the choir, and it was a fitting way to end a marvelous evening. Well done to all involved, and well done particularly to Congleton's great Choral Society who can hold their own in lofty company.