As readers of this diary are no doubt aware, its principal aim is to ensure that the many eminent professional musicians who play in the city receive some acknowledgement of their efforts. On a personal level, as a consequence, since the diarist travels regularly to musical events in the other Midland cities and London , Leicester’s non- professional music making scene has had to be rigorously ignored if one was not to suffer from overkill. So,when I was attracted to the prospect of hearing on a Sunday afternoon a Beethoven concerto that I had never heard in the concert hall, it was the first time for several years that I had been to a concert of a non- professional orchestra and there was no thought about it being an entry in the diary. It was simply an opportunity to hear Marina Chiche, Guy Johnston and Tom Poster, three stalwarts of the Leicester Chamber Music scene, in an unfamiliar setting.
And it has to be said that that alone made the outing well worthwhile. Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is very much the Cinderella of his concertos and certainly it scales no heights. However, a country walk in the lowlands has its own delights and there are certainly many of those to be found in this work. I can dimly remember at university hearing a recording and finding myself humming the last movement theme for weeks afterwards. It is truly a Sunday afternoon occasion in which the unaffected pleasure of the making of music is the foremost aim and this came across here even in a concert hall setting. Leicester knows what fine musicians these artists are but what emerged in spades was the sheer delight they were feeling during this presumably rare opportunity to perform this music in public. Violinist and pianist spent most o their time with smiles on their faces. Guy Johnston looked a little more solemn but then he had the most taxing moments in the piece to play! With a spry accompaniment, the performance did justice to the work and I thought I had been right to come.
Indeed, after that and with the best will in the world, the prospect of a non- professional orchestra attempting to cope with Strauss’ heroic life made an alternative prospect of early tea and scones quite beguiling. In particular, past experience had suggested such orchestras were usually strongest in the wind sections and least reliable in the strings. That this, if true, would be a severe problem in a work like Ein Heldenleben was obvious.
Well, I stayed and my fears could not have been more groundless. From the very first bars my face must have been a picture, with mouth wide open and eyes just about to pop out my head. Where was this sound coming from, this richly lustrous and splendidly vigorous attack? I grew up only knowing the dry acoustic of the original Royal Festival Hall and, with the exception of the Philharmonia, my memory suggests London orchestras of that time struggled to produce the sort of string sound one was listening to here in 2018 coming from a non- professional orchestra.
So within a few minutes I had switched from cautious optimism that most things would be in place to the way one goes that extra distance and engages with the interpretative qualities of the performance. These seemed to me to be considerable. The work’s range of feeling was all there. It helped of course that the leader was Adam Summerhayes who was simply superb in what amounts to a mini violin concerto depicting the centre of the composer’s life ,his handful of a wife , a subject Strauss returned to in one or two other major works. However, the summation of that episode is one of the most glorious themes Strauss ever wrote and it needs to burgeon into gold. This is exactly what it did here, to glorious and moving effect. Conversely, Strauss’ skewering of the Beckmessers was delivered with piercing sound from woodwind and brass. True, there were the occasional moments when the wash of sound blurred but overall the performance did full justice to the outrageous vigour of Strauss’ vision. I have not heard Claus Efland conduct for a long time. He is clearly a conductor capable of galvanising players to go where his interpretation of work guides him. It resulted in a performance which yielded so much more than simple relieved satisfaction at an orchestra having got through a complex piece of music without a train crash!
Lastly, I could not but compare this tone poem with Liszt’s Les Preludes performed last week in the DMH, see the previous entry to the Diary. In my opinion that music was bombast to the nth degree. During my lifetime that has been all too often the sniffy response to Ein Heldenleben, often from worthy people who think that the concert hall should be nearer to a church than a place of entertainment. Hopefully we can now see what a wonderfully vital work it is, written by one of the greatest masters of the orchestra there has ever been. In this performance I found myself prey to the full gamut of feelings about what life can be and no-one, but no-one, should be sniffing at that.