REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on York Guildhall Orchestra, York Barbican, Oct 14

David Greed: Former Orchestra of Opera North leader and York Guildhall Orchestra guest soloist for Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Picture: Opera North

THERE was a distinct start-of-term feeling about this fixture, in which Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Elgar’s First Symphony were preceded by a Dvorak concert overture.

It was refreshing to see several new, youthful faces in the orchestra, which was conducted by its musical director Simon Wright. But the advent of new blood, however welcome, inevitably carries an element of adjustment as compensation is made for retirees and incomers find their feet.

This may help to explain the tentative air about Dvorak’s In Nature’s Realm, where the strings initially lacked focus. But the composer’s orchestration increasingly gained in colour and the work finished confidently.

David Greed retired last summer after a mighty 44 years as leader of the Orchestra of Opera North, but thankfully has resisted reaching for the carpet slippers, continuing to freelance widely. As soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, he made an immediate impression with the sweetness of his upper range.

There was a rallentando into the second theme and an even bigger one before the cadenza, where he really let the music breathe rather than dazzle with mere virtuosity. The slow movement was an intimate affair at first, which made for a bigger contrast when the agitated central section arrived. When the opening returned, Greed was back to sharing quiet confidences with his audience, allowing us to wallow in Mendelssohn’s luscious melody.

David Greed: “Let the music breathe rather than dazzle with mere virtuosity”. Picture: Opera North

The bridge passage into the final rondo was beautifully elongated, keeping us tantalised with expectation. When the Allegro at last arrived it had all the flair and brilliance that the score implies, with Wright maintaining a strongly rhythmic backing to the soloist’s rapid figurations.

The coda was even more dazzling. But Greed was always at the service of the music rather than imposing his personality upon it showily, a refreshing and ultimately satisfying approach.

Elgar’s Symphony No 1 in A flat carries his favourite marking of nobilmente over its motto theme, but apart from the brass here, it was less than noble at first. But there was plenty of vivacity in the Allegro when it came and a nicely contrasting hush with the recall of its opening. What really impressed was the neatly controlled inner detail. Brass provided fire whenever needed.

The scherzo was exciting right from the start, with real precision from the strings and no let-up on the journey into the march-like second theme. Much tender phrasing infused the slow movement, particularly in the outer strings; there was an achingly elegiac feel to its closing pages.

Wright handled the transition into the last movement’s Allegro beautifully, where the main statement was superbly bold. The motto theme emerged more strongly than ever, symbolising the orchestra’s gradual resurgence throughout the evening. Things are shaping up nicely, not only for this season but well beyond.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Albion Quartet,  Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, York

Albion Quartet: Ann Beilby, left, Emma Parker, Nathaniel Boyd and Tamsin Waley-Cohen

Albion Quartet,  British Music Society of York, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, January 13

ALTHOUGH only in existence for six years, the Albion Quartet has already visited York and North Yorkshire at least four times. Once a slightly cautious, even nervy, group they have matured considerably over that period.

Their appearance here for the British Music Society was ample proof of their progress, with string quartets by Haydn and Dvorak framing a shining piece by Freya Waley-Cohen written only four years ago.

Starting with Haydn is not the piece of cake it may seem. Ensemble needs to be neat and phrasing exact. You cannot get away with anything, the way you might perhaps in a modern, more diffuse work.

His Op 33 No 5 in G has a stop-start scherzo that demands the utmost concentration from the players for its humour to succeed. The Albions were more than up for it: they despatched it with supreme confidence.

They had settled straight into the groove in the opening Vivace and there was a satisfying zest about the closing theme and variations. Only in the slow movement might the leader, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, have been a little less edgy in her cantabile.

Her younger sister Freya’s Dust was written in 2019 after the premature death of Oliver Knussen, who had been her composition teacher. But its three movements are far from merely elegiac. The first, ‘Charlotte’, sounded like fragments of Haydn heard from a distance, stuttering at first but settling into a strong momentum, with the main action in the first violin.

‘Serpent’ was more like a scherzo. Again, its brio brought Haydn to mind, with frenetic, rhythmically exciting activity, first in the upper three voices, then in the lower three. There was anger, too, in its splenetic accents, which finally dissipated and slowed to a halt.

If there was a lament, it came in ‘Dust’, the final movement, which was reflective, lingering nostalgically, with two brief violin cadenzas before the tessitura rose inexorably, spidery at first before disintegrating into the ether. Dust is constantly intriguing and deserves to enter the repertoire permanently.

Dvorak’s first completed work on returning to Bohemia in 1895 after three years in America was his G major string quartet, Op 106. The grateful aromas of his homeland are unmistakeable here. The Albion pointed the contrast nicely between the effervescent opening and its calmer second theme.

The acceleration out of the development section was keenly observed, with Bohemian melodies presaging the sheer excitement of the coda. The slow movement was imbued with serenity, which held good despite the tug-of-war with darker colours at its midst. After a taut scherzo, with its smoother trio, the finale was notable for the way the voices tossed around its main four-note motif.

The finale of Dvorak’s ‘American’ quartet made a lively – and generous – encore. The Albion’s new self-confidence now allows its intelligence to shine through. Its return to Ryedale in the summer festival is an exciting prospect.

Review by Martin Dreyer