Guildhall Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Gourlay – Hänsel und Gretel & Dvořák 7

Hänsel und Gretel – Suite [arr. David Wallace]
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Gourlay

Reviewed by: Hannah Sander

Reviewed: 21 November, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Concerts given by youth orchestras can be one of life’s treats, playing with unfailing accuracy not because of technical proficiency but because the players care a disproportionate amount about each semiquaver. British student ensembles often perform with hearts worn on sleeves in a manner not often heard by their professional counterparts. It would be interesting to find out at what point this enthusiasm becomes hardened and wears away. The orchestras at conservatories, where participation in concerts is to a greater or lesser degree compulsory, are a sort of halfway house between the devotion of youth and the indifference of a jobbing musician.

The choice of concert programme given to a youth orchestra is absolutely crucial. This concert demonstrated that perfectly; and the passion of the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra’s front desks and lead winds was inspiring.. A recital can hardly have been more affected by illness. Sir Colin Davis withdrew several weeks ago and was replaced by the Hallé’s Assistant Conductor, Andrew Gourlay, looking barely weeks older than the orchestra in front of him. Then, on the day of the concert, both of the singers in the Humperdinck pulled out (Raphaela Papadakis, as Gretel, and Catherine Backhouse). The suite from Hänsel und Gretel was performed anyway, in the planned arrangement by Guildhall alumnus David Wallace, who explained that his Suite can be performed with or without singers. The concert order was reversed (how they could have contemplated ending the evening on a pantomime from an opera remains a mystery).

It is hard not to be prejudiced when someone begins to tinker about with a favourite piece. Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera is masterful, as plush as Wagner and bursting with tunes. The score is dense. Richard Strauss conducted the premiere and there is a lot of Humperdinck in Strauss. Wallace, who completed his postgraduate studies in Composition as recently as 2006, re-worked the score out of love and the desire to create “a renewed interest in the concert hall of this wonderful and beautifully evocative music.” A suite of sorts already existed, using the opera’s Overture and interludes, and has been recorded in this way. Wallace wanted to write an orchestral version that included the major themes heard elsewhere in the opera, as well as producing “a symphonic rendering of the various motifs and melodies that occur throughout the dramatic action of the opera.”

It is not clear what Wallace thinks “symphonic rendering” means. Apparently it does not mean lending Humperdinck’s motifs symphonic form, as Wallace wisely did not attempt to weave the motifs into a symphony. His intention, in his own words, was to produce “a definitive suite for concert performance”. This is not a suite though, but is more or less continuous, with a break fifteen minutes into the forty-minute work which almost spliced it into two unequally weighted movements. It is closest to a tone poem. In fact, it is a condensed version of the opera, and which has the potential to sound sludgy: it is thickly scored and slippery in harmony. The speed with which Wallace’s arrangement moves exacerbates this effect. It is easy for an arranger to forget how well they know a score, and not allow the listener the help they need to follow it. The orchestra seemed as lost as its listeners. The absence of the two singers was a great loss to benefit enormously from their melodies and providing the dramatic push missing here. Wallace says his Suite can be performed with or without singers. This is overambitious; few if any works are equally effective with or without their solo parts.

The concert’s second half contained a cracking performance of Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony. Humperdinck’s opera, even without Wallace’s input, can be added to the list of deceptively tricky works which younger players often struggle to find their way through. Dvořák’s D minor Symphony is a gift, a big juicy piece of drama with wonderfully clean scoring. The performance was flamboyant, well-characterised, remarkably sensitive and thoroughly enjoyable, with an element of fiery over-excitement.

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