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Wagner, C V Stanford and Malcolm Arnold

Wagner: Prelude: Lohengrin, Act 3 (1850)
C V Stanford: Violin Concerto in D, op.74 (1899)
Malcolm Arnold: Symphony No.3, op.63 (1954/1957)

Shulah Oliver - violin, Hitchin Symphony Orchestra/Paul Adrian Rooke

St Mary’s Church, Hitchin: 21 November 2009

It says a lot about the imperturbability of youth that Shulah Oliver, only three years out of RAM, could play the Stanford Concerto as if she’d been performing it for years. She proved to be a very persuasive advocate for this glorious work, and her performance tonight was a triumph.

The four great British Violin Concertos written before 1945 are those of Elgar (1910), Somervell (1930), Havergal Brian (1935) and Moeran (1942). That Ms Oliver has everything required to give any of these works life – she played the Somervell a couple of years ago – was on abundant display. The ease with which she played the Stanford was breath taking. There are the usual Brahmsian fingerprints one finds in Stanford but once you’ve got over that there is always much in his music to enjoy. This work is long simply because it needs to be for the music to run its course and tell us all its tales.

The only real problem with Stanford, and the reason why he is neglected today, is that he had an inability to look forwards – his music is firmly rooted in the past. This is not a criticism, for it is fine music, but it is the visionary qualities of Elgar, Brian et al which makes their music all the more special, and more readily communicable to us today. I love Stanford’s music and am pleased that tonight we were treated to a masterpiece in a worthy performance.

After the interval, even more splendours. After recently hearing two performances of Arnold’s 4th Symphony, under the inspired baton of John Gibbons, it was a real pleasure to hear No.3, heavily coloured by the death of the composer’s mother. A slow movement, at times as bleak as anything in the 9th Symphony, is of such devastation as to be almost unbearable. Rooke really brought out the sorrow and longing of this music, his players responding well, and the grief laden music was given its full due. The outer movements were equally impressive but in a different way. The first movement's design (two movements rolled into one, as in Sibelius’s 5th) was well handled, especially the change from the first to the second half, keeping the ever changing material clearly audible; the chameleon like qualities of the themes is the essence of this music. The finale is one of those marvelous romps for which Arnold is famous, complete with a pop tune for good measure. Here, Rooke chose a rather more deliberate tempo than in all the recordings but it worked and the change to Presto for the coda was a revelation.

This was the Hitch Symphony Orchestra’s 80th Anniversary Gala Concert and it did itself proud. Good luck to its next 80 years, and to its championing of British composers.

Bob Briggs