Schumann: Overture, Scherzo and Finale; Weber: 2nd Clarinet Concerto; Nielsen: First Symphony

A courageous choice of programme was one of the hallmarks of the second orchestral concert in the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society’s season, presented mid-February at St. Stephen’s church. It is not often we have an opportunity of hearing a live performance of Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo & Finale nor, for that matter Carl Nielsen’s first symphony, both of which present many formidable challenges to an amateur orchestra. On the other hand, Weber’s two clarinet concertos, of which we heard the second, have been standard repertoire for many years. Both provide a dazzling central showpiece for any concert programme and for any virtuoso performer.

The resident conductor of the Tonbridge Philharmonic Orchestra, Robin Morrish, modestly took a place among the first violins, handing over the baton on this occasion to guest conductor Francis Griffin, who has worked with orchestras and operatic societies throughout south-east England. The structure of the orchestra (thirty strings, ten woodwind and nine brass) presented him with problems of sound balance within the lively acoustics of a church, and I was reminded of the advice Richard Straus often gave to young student conductors, ‘… never look at the brass: it only encourages them!’ However, Griffin’s beat was clear and firm; his control of dynamics secure, and his conducting style vigorous and emphatic.

Which brings me to a question I cannot satisfactorily answer, and which is not quite as daft as it sounds. Why choose Schumann’s strange, mongrel piece to open a concert on a cold winter’s evening? Although the church heating took the worst of the chill out of the atmosphere it was still not enough to warm and relax string-playing fingers, faced with a sustained mezzo-forte opening, or to avoid some stridency in the woodwind.

The result was a shaky and uncertain start, lacking warmth and proper intonation, to a piece which, as I have suggested, has not secured a firm foothold in the concert repertoire. Indeed, one unkind critic who shall remain nameless for the very good reason I have forgotten his name, went so far as to say that this comparatively early orchestral work by Schumann shows ‘painstaking workmanship applied to indifferent material’.

it might be objected that it is no part of a reviewer’s job to criticise or even to comment on programme building; what really matters is the way in which the players responded to the various challenges. How good, or otherwise, was their performance? To these questions I would answer that under Francis Griffin and the inspirational leadership of Penelope Howard the performance gathered strength and confidence as it went along – a comment true not just of the Schumann item, but of the concert as a whole.

A smaller orchestra was required for Weber’s second clarinet concerto with soloist Shelley Phillips, who started her concert career with the Royal Tunbridge Symphony Orchestra and helped to organise the first Tunbridge Wells Music Festival in 2003. She established her authority from the outset with a steadiness of attack, beautifully controlled arpeggios and mellifluous warmth of tone, heard to best advantage in the gorgeous slow movement. But Weber’s main concern was to demonstrate the brilliance of his chosen instrument, which he did in the outer movements with a series of saucy impudent tunes, many of which would not have been out of place in a Victorian music hall or circus, tumbling out like clowns one after another. The orchestra provided gentle, good-mannered support at every turn, and clearly enjoyed the performance as much as the soloist and her audience.

Stronger meat followed the interval with the first symphony by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It is a work somewhat in the style of Brahms and firmly rooted in the Beethoven tradition, where conflicting musical ideas are eventually resolved in splendid synthesis. The vigorous exchange between the brass and the rest of the orchestra and the sustained energy of the string players, unanimous and crisp in their attack, were among the many strengths of a natural and unaffected performance, for which each section of the orchestra and their guest conductor deserve the greatest credit. This was live music-making at its most compulsive.

 Robert Hardcastle