Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms

It is not often we have two musical directors appearing on the same platform in one evening, but for the second concert in their 60th anniversary season the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society invited Tony Gould, musical director in the 1960s and early 70s, to conduct, and their present musical director Robin Morrish to appear as soloist in a performance of the Brahms violin concerto.

The overture-symphony-concerto format was conventional enough, as were the 19th century works chosen to fit into this structure, but taken together the whole programme placed heavy demands on orchestra and soloist in equal measure. There were plenty of mountains to climb.

But before the music a word about the venue, the Tonbridge Baptist Church. This is an exciting, modern building with many admirable features – good heating and comfortable seating by no means the least of its virtues. The main part of the church is a fine open space unencumbered by supporting pillars, with a mix of absorbent and reflecting surfaces, including angled acoustic screens mounted high in the ceiling, and panels of warm, beautifully laid brick set into the walls.

The result of such care in the design and choice of materials became immediately apparent with the powerful opening chord of Beethoven’s Egmont overture. The warmth and resonance of the strings, and the quality and quantity of received sound, would have done credit to many a professional orchestra. It was clear from the outset that here were amateur players well equipped to meet the many challenges ahead.

Tony Gould set a steady, reliable pace that allowed the power and heroism of Beethoven’s tragic, brooding score to unfold, page by page, until the brief triumphant climax was reached. A convincing performance that supported in every way Denis Matthews’ verdict that the dramatic force of the music Beethoven composed for Egmont and other stage works, heard out of context as absolute music, is ‘staggeringly self-sufficient.’

A complete change of mood followed with Mendelssohn’s 3rd Symphony, ‘The Scottish’, in A minor. This was dedicated to one of the composer’s most enthusiastic admirers, Queen Victoria, who once described him as a ‘wonderful genius … so pleasing and amiable.’ The orchestra made the most of the succession of engaging tunes, especially the woodwind section in the scherzo. The bouncing rhythms and the Scottish snaps were beautifully caught by the strings, and the whole performance had a joyous quality which was quite irresistible, right up to the closing allegro maestoso, which always takes me by surprise. It has a splendid, rolling tune that sounds rather like Auld lang syne out of For he’s a jolly good fellow. What a way to end a symphony!

More serious matters awaited our attention after the interval when Robin Morrish took his place for the Brahms violin concerto. The peaks were now more clearly visible and menacing. That formidable opening movement lasting more than twenty minutes, with the fiendish Joachim cadenza. The beautiful but deceptively simple adagio, full of traps for the unwary, and the strenuous gipsy-like finale – why did so many late 19th century composers write concertos nobody could play? One critic said that Brahms had not composed a concerto for violin and orchestra, but a conceto for violin against the orchestra. Even Joachim had his doubts, but his superb technical mastery finally overcame all the challenges, and laid the foundation on which Brahms’s great masterpiece now stands.

How much of all this was in Robin Morrish’s mind as he went into the attack I cannot say. But from the very first note he achieved a balance between orchestra and solo instrument rarely achieved today, especially in recorded versions in which the soloist is brought too far forward. In this live performance a true dialogue could be heard, sometimes tempestuous and at other times tender, as with Nancy Sargeant’s wonderfully sustained oboe playing in the Adagio.

Yes – there were tense moments, passages where intonation was threatened, and where ensemble was not all it should have been. But under Tony Gould’s steadfast direction and Robin Morrish’s splendid musicianship this was a live performance to cherish. With the peaks safely behind them they stood together on the platform to receive wave after wave of enthusiastic applause. It beat the winter Olympics any