In concert – Noriko Ogawa, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Brahms, Grieg & Sibelius

Noriko Ogawa (piano), English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Brahms Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1880)
Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (1868)
Sibelius Symphony No. 5 in E flat, Op. 82 (1915-19)

Town Hall, Cheltenham
Sunday 16 April 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert had no English (or British) connection and no premieres or unfamiliar music. In short, a mainstream sequence of overture, concerto and symphony which worked as a programme simply because these pieces went so well together.

Although it has never lacked for performances, Brahms’s Tragic Overture remains among his more unusual conceptions: a concert overture whose deftly modified sonata design admits an element of evocation as if some intangible drama were being played out. It was to the credit of this performance when such subjection offset an otherwise unwavering formal trajectory, Kenneth Woods integrating the speculative central episode with a conviction that made the heightened reprise of the main theme the more telling for its implacably wrought fatalism.

Brahms’s writing of an overture with components as if ‘in the wrong order’ made an unlikely link to the Piano Concerto by Grieg, which still offers a wealth of surprises in a sympathetic reading. This it received from Noriko Ogawa – bringing out the unforced eloquence of what, the opening Allegro in particular, is much more than a loose sequence of enticing melodies in search of coherence. As her imaginative take on its cadenza underlined, Grieg left nothing to chance as the movement turns decisively full circle. With its easeful horn melody (courtesy of James Topp) and alluring solo response, the Adagio exuded an understated allure, and if the finale lacked for any rhythmic verve, the central section with its rapt flute melody (courtesy of Laura Jellicoe) sounded as affecting as its heightened peroration at the close was majestic.

The ESO and Woods are currently working towards a Sibelius cycle and their account of the Fifth Symphony had all the hallmarks of complete identity with, here again, a determination not to take to take anything in so familiar a work for granted. This was especially notable in the opening movement – its segueing between what began as two separate entities rendered with due seamlessness. Not least that central climax, out of which the scherzo emerged then proceeded to accrue motion imperceptibly through to a coda whose velocity was irresistibly evident. Much more than a whimsical interlude, the Andante had keen appreciation of those ambiguous shadows which inform its progress at crucial junctures, yet without undermining that guileless essence to the fore in the closing pages with their felicitous woodwind playing.

Making an attacca (and rightly so) directly into the finale, Woods brought out the productive contrast between its ideas – thus, the initial theme with its onrushing strings, then the ‘swan melody’ with its harmonic allure and intricate textural layering abetted here by the up-front acoustic of Cheltenham Town Hall. Just how so tensile and compact a movement generates an apotheosis of such grandeur cannot easily be explained, yet such an outcome was tangible as those concluding chords emerged with an inevitability as undeniable as it was heartening.

They certainly set the seal on an impressive performance which was warmly received by the sizable house. The ESO can be heard in Worcester early next month with assistant conductor Michael Karcher-Young, then with Woods in June for the latest edition of The Elgar Festival.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about Noriko Ogawa Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra.

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