The Pity of War - Concert Review

Posted: 18 November by Nick Horton

Exeter Symphony Orchestra Concert
Saturday 15th November
United Reform Church, Southernhay

At this time of remembrance and with the special anniversaries which have been taking place this year the ESO chose the appropriate title “The Pity of War” for their concert. And what a good concert it was!

Gustav’s Holst’s Second Suite for Military Band made an excellent opener to the programme. The woodwind and brass created a warm, homogenous, well-blended sound with some very pleasing solos. This work is wonderfully tuneful – full of cheerful, foot-tapping melodies, which brought a smile to the faces of the audience and reminded me how important our folk tradition has been in melding us together and both reflecting and shaping our sense of national identity. This could only be British music, written with a sense of national pride. The evocative sentiment of the English pastoral landscape is at the heart of the second movement, where the band captured the essential loveliness of it all. The third movement was slightly rough and ready but perhaps this is in line with its title: “Song of the Blacksmith”. The finale “Dargason” is a rescoring of the finale of “The St Paul’s Suite” (for string orchestra) but works equally well for winds. It might have benefitted from a little more drive but overall the whole performance was impressive and most enjoyable.

Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major followed, with soloist Mihkel Kerem. This reviewer must put his personal prejudices on the table. This is not music for me – for me it is too overtly self-indulgent. However, the conductor, Brian Northcott, was clearly in sympathy with and fully understands the emotional nature of this piece and coaxed a fine performance from his players. The first movement was full of the rich, lush, post-romantic sound world. In the second movement, an extensive cantilena melodic outpouring for the soloist (in which he produced a sympathetic sound), the emotional flux was followed by the orchestral accompaniment, with detailed shaping. Here the audience seemed captivated. The performance of the third and final movement captured the zest and spiritedness of this quick-silver like music. The soloist displayed great technical facility and his performance was engaging, if at times lacking the full-bodied warmth which is needed in this repertoire.

After the interval we were treated to a performance of George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, written in 1913. This was a sensitive and enchanting performance of this enduring and quintessentially English music. Butterworth served as a lieutenant in the First World War. He was killed in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. The quality of this piece leaves us to wonder what he might have achieved had it not been for war – just one aspect of the pity of war.

The concert concluded with the most ambitious performance – Symphony No 6 in E minor by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Finished in 1948 and with its cataclysmic opening and the emotional tone throughout many have claimed that this work must have been influenced by war. Vaughan Williams himself denied this, stating the work had no overt programme. This may well be true; however, this piece takes us through an expressive journey which includes both the terrifying and, to use a fanciful analogy, a glacial wasteland and much emotional turmoil which lies in between. Such emotional states do not have to be inspired by or be indicative of war – but may be seen to have much to do with it! The orchestra seemed to grasp this work with both hands and perform it from the inside, displaying great understanding of its emotional content. It is not an easy work to play and they had clearly worked very hard at it; work which paid off in spades. I felt as if I had been through an emotional rollercoaster and taken to some very challenging (and questioning) places. Vaughan Williams may well be a composer with some technical limitations but he was a composer who often had something very important to say and this work is a good example of such where the content triumphs over whatever technical weaknesses there may be. I take my hat off to the conductor and orchestra for opening up this work and their achievement in this performance.

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