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All Quiet on the Western Front - November 2014

Four pieces of music and seven poems from the English tradition of the first four decades of the 20th century - but this was no pastoral idyll.

Using poems to frame music with first war connections perhaps looked unpromising on paper but the SSO produced a very powerful show on Sunday afternoon. Bax's 'Tintagel' (that opened the afternoon's music) can sound a little like an uneasy mix of Debussy and Edwardiana, but the SSO's version was different offering an edginess enhanced by the 'war poems' context. This was powerful, gritty - and emotionally involving; there were devastating seascapes and rocky outcrops in abundance!

Butterworth's 'Banks of Green Willow' is often the light relief in an English concert - but here too the appropriately uniformed poetry readers gave the performance huge poignancy. Lovingly phrased pastoral sounds from woodwind and strings, very simply presented, made this almost hackneyed score fresh and alive; it's good to have one's ears re-opened.

Delius' double concerto, written for the Harrison sisters, will have been new to many and may have surprised those used to the orchestral miniatures. This was a persuasive performance from Liubov Ulybysheva and Michal Cwizewicz. It never fell into being just another vehicle for soloistic virtuosity - that was thanks to both composer and performers. It came across to a well filled STAG as a thoughtfully prepared piece, well thought out by conductor,orchestra and soloists - balance, so often a problem with this sort of piece in this particular hall, was impeccable. The soloists were thoroughly and musically assured. I received an email during the week from an often highly critical friend [not an SSO regular] who'd come to hear the concerto. He's been a long-time member of the Delius society and knew Margaret Harrison very well in her later years - I quote "I thought it a very good performance and the two soloists 'got it', as Margaret used to say (or NOT, as in the case of one of the commercial recordings I played her in the early 90s)". That's high praise from this particular gentleman.

Vaughan-Williams 6th is from a later war and is written to be continuous through four dark and sometimes menacing movements. This was great stuff from the SSO; - it's a difficult score, with sections that seem more like Shostakovich than English Nationalism. Not all of the more technical moments were totally as scored - (nobody should sit in a concert with a score on their knees !) - but the power, horror, bleakness, despair and anger were all sweeping over us. I've never known a STAG sunday afternoon audience so still; ........... and so awake.

I approached this concert with some misgivings, particularly with a great deal of "remembrance" in the media recently, but is amongst the most affecting shows I've witnessed from the SSO.

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