Hugh Wood (world premiere); Humperdinck; Mussorsgky

Alexandra Wood (solo violin); Milton Keynes City Orchestra/Sîan Edwards

Milton Keynes Theatre, 26 January 2009 3 stars


The Milton Keynes City Orchestra is undergoing a vigorous make-over, which sees it taking up music by living composers (something it hasn't done for several years) and making visible efforts to attract the interest of the local community.

Last Friday's concert bears witness to both these endeavours: the premiere of a Violin Concerto by high-profile English composer Hugh Wood was cautiously placed in the middle of the programme, flanked by two more traditionally euphonious numbers, Humperdinck's Prelude from the opera Hänsel und Gretel, and Mussorsgky's beloved Pictures at an Exhibition (in Ravel's orchestration).

The choice of Humperdinck was clever, echoing as it does the much-hyped performance of Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden last autumn. The Prelude of the opera provides a sample of the music to those who didn't have a chance to catch a performance in London. It is difficult not to be intrigued by the concept of two children protagonists in an opera sprouting up amidst the tortured last days of German romanticism.  And indeed, this Prelude sounds almost like music not only about children, but even for children.

The innocent folklore of the opening major triad in the horns (so very reminiscent of the incipit of the Blue Danube waltz) defines the character of the whole of this brief introduction, spinning one German folk-tune after another, some of them playful (the mock march that starts up half-way through the piece), some of them, like the opening horn theme, calmly serene. There is a startling lack of foreshadowing of the theme of evil, which results in a diatonicism so untainted by chromatic inflections as to make us wonder whether it is all in earnest. Still, there is little denying that the music is beguiling, and very cute — and the orchestra's earnest and competent performance uncannily matched the wide-eyed mood of the work.

Hugh Wood's music embodies all that densely packed musical material, tortuous harmonic flow and heart-rending lyricism which does not feature in Humperdinck's bucolic tableau. The first movement of his new Violin Concerto gathers energy from contrast: it is as if a Bergian spirit possessed the magic violin from L'Histoire du Soldat, forcing it to sing restlessly in the face of the interruptions of a mocking brass fanfare.  Alexandra Wood managed the intricate lyricism of her part with an assuredness of expression that, unfortunately, clearly upstaged the earnest, but not always able playing of the orchestra — despite Sîan Edwards' good efforts on the podium.

Sian EdwardsThe second movement has something of the incantation, with a recurring syncopated pulse in harp and piano creating a sense of suspended wonder that descends like a halo over the whole movement. With the highly rhythmical third movement however, the discrepancy between the ability of solo and orchestra is at its most obvious. The vertiginous alternation of duple and triple metre made it difficult for the orchestra to keep up with Alexandra Wood's dancing, but on the occasions in which the orchestral body was in perfect sync with the solo, the result was enchanting: the closing bars of the movement, briefly haunted by the memory of the first movement's longing, lingered on in the mind long after the double barline.

Mussorsgky's Pictures at an Exhibition closed the concert. It is not unusual for both audiences and orchestras to underestimate the emotional and technical intricacy of a work so firmly established in the classical repertoire. These 'pictures' are pervaded with a chilling, dark undercurrent (most obvious, perhaps, in the much underrated Promenades between the painting we've just 'viewed' and the next one) that requires extreme sharpness of articulation and attention to detail.  

After the initial Promenade (whose opening solo trumpet could truly have done with some more confidence), Gnomus' stealthy runs in the strings were poorly articulated, a setback that however was redeemed by a wonderfully forlorn Il Vecchio Castello and the sad heaviness of Bydlo. More could have been brought out of the ensuing promenade, whose plunge into the lower strings and brass is one of the darkest moments of the work as a whole. The Dance of the Chicks in their Shells, if a little too slow for my liking, was razor-sharp in articulation. And while the contrast between the rich and poor Jews, Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuÿle, could have been a lot more pronounced — especially in the lamenting trumpets that herald the unctuous Schmuÿle Baba Jaga was spot on and gathered up the necessary momentum for the majestic celebrations of the Great Gate of Kiev.

But for all the faults one may find in the Milton Keynes City Orchestra, their commitment to new music and their always-earnest engagement with the music at hand is laudable, and perhaps it was the decision to include such a well-known piece as the Pictures at an Exhibition that could be contested. It is easier to spot (and harder to forgive) inaccuracies in standard repertoire than in a premiere. And yet Mussorsgky was probably needed in order to gather up an audience that wouldn't necessarily have made a trip to the Milton Keynes Theatre just for music they haven't heard of before. It is a difficult balance to strike, and one on which I hope this concert hall will keep on working throughout this new season.

By Delia Casadei

Photos: Hugh Wood (top), Sian Edwards (bottom)


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