Applying lazy shorthand epithets to musicians is pretty exasperating, even more so when fellow musicians are guilty of such labelling. When Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (best known as the composer of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast) first toured America, he was dubbed “the African Mahler”, despite never having visited that continent, and the equally misleading tag, “the black Dvořák”, fails to do proper justice to his wide range of musical form (operas, songs, chamber music and a symphony) and melodic inventiveness. In 1911, a year before his tragically early death, he composed incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s Othello. The five-movement suite opened the latest Chineke! Orchestra’s concert, with the American conductor Fawzi Haimor in charge, and the composer’s Ballade in A minor closed proceedings as an encore. 

Fawzi Haimor
© Rob Davidson

The one quality that stands out in Coleridge-Taylor’s music, here reflected in the finely detailed playing, is its vibrancy. From the opening Dance, with its exuberant Spanish-like revelry, the dreamy, clarinet-led opening of Children’s Intermezzo, the impassioned central Funeral March, the tenderness of The Willow Song and its trumpet solo rising above the full orchestra, through to the concluding Military March bursting with energy, this richly-coloured music deserves to be heard more often than it is.

There was no mistaking the commitment and palpable joy in the playing of Chineke! Its glory is its string section, whose members include many with considerable professional and international experience, by turns weighty and incisive, creating waves of infectious propulsion, and yet capable of the most delicate and precise pizzicato. There are some fine individual soloists within its ranks, including a secure principal horn, with only the woodwind lacking the ultimate in distinctiveness.

Lazy shorthand is also often applied to “the Bruch”. The composer himself grew increasingly irritated at the neglect of his other two concertos for the violin, not to mention the Scottish Fantasy, but his G minor work for this instrument has stubbornly remained one of the best loved in the entire repertoire for some 150 years now. Listening to Tai Murray’s warmly expressive playing, in a full flowering of the Romantic spirit, it was easy to see why. Bruch himself stated that “melody is the soul of music”, and this performance had soulfulness throughout. Murray conjured up some intensely voluptuous moments, with sensitive shaping of the accompaniment from Haimor. It might not have been the last word in refinement, but in the prayer-like atmosphere of the Adagio and the gypsy-flavoured Finale, where the soloist stressed the sharply inflected rhythms, it was emotionally charged and highly compelling.

In exasperation Beecham once told his recording producer, “What can you do with it? It’s like a lot of yaks jumping about.” He was referring to the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Haimor’s solution was to choose a steady tempo and reserve the ecstatic, hell-for-leather energy for the final movement, reversing the composer’s tempo markings. It was odd too to hear him eliciting strange swooning swells in the Trio section, itself based on an Austrian pilgrims’ hymn. 

This work has a special place in the collective Chineke! heart, because it was played at the very first concert this orchestra gave four years ago. If at times this reading struck me as a little too controlled, civilising the rawness of what Tovey called “the Bacchic fury”, it was often light on its feet, especially in the opening Vivace section, and the dance-like rhythms were echoed in the precision of the playing. It was deeply satisfying to hear this remarkable BME ensemble giving full expression to Beethoven’s message of universality.