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Johannes Brahms

JB in the ‘Nham

The Birmingham Post isn’t always able to post online everything that I’ve written for its print edition, so – after a suitable time lag (ideally you should go out and buy the paper) – I’ll be posting my recent reviews here. As per the print edition, they’re all fairly concise – just 250 words. This is of a performance at Cheltenham Town Hall on Tuesday 21 November 2017.

“Brahms premiere” said the online listing, and who wouldn’t want to hear that? A couple of years ago Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra recorded an orchestral version of Elgar’s Piano Quintet. Now Woods has orchestrated Brahms’s Second Piano Quartet Op.26 to create what’s effectively a completely new Brahms symphony.

I’m sceptical about orchestral versions of chamber works. Woods feels differently, and I’m not going to take issue with that here. This was a labour of love, created over the best part of a decade, and my only serious reservation in this spirited premiere performance concerned Woods’s decision to give the opening motif to a quartet of horns in their fearsome top register: though this was apparently the idea that inspired the whole project. So it’s a case of take it or leave it, and – notwithstanding an occasional feeling that it was all perhaps a little too colourful for Brahms – it was far too enjoyable to leave.

And so many of Brahms’s ideas translated beautifully: clarinet and horn duetting in the slow movement; bassoon plodding under a lilting oboe duet; and leader Tijmen Huisingh sweetly delivering his second movement violin solo as a sort of homage to the First Symphony. Woods’s realisation of the third and most understated movement, in particular, sounded as if Brahms had actually conceived it for the orchestra. Any Brahms lover would be fascinated to hear this orchestration, and under Woods’s direction the ESO played it with whole-hearted commitment and verve.

And if that leaves no space to discuss the first half of the concert, and Alexander Sitkovetsky’s sweeping, heroic performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, I can only apologise. It’s just that under Woods’s artistic leadership, the ESO is an orchestra that gives you a lot to talk about.