I doubt many of us have been to the seaside recently. Even if Bristolians had braved the cold and wet and wind, I’m sure that the mudflats of Brean or the arcades of Weston-super-Mare were a far cry from the visions of that mysterious body of saltwater conjured up by the Enigma Orchestra in their second ever concert at St George’s. The youngest addition to Bristol’s accomplished orchestra roster, Enigma is a talented bunch of players led by the energetic and ever-cheekily-grinning Rob Weaver, whose musicianship and ambition clearly showed in the challenging programme of sea-related works by Debussy, Britten and John Pickard.

Enigma Orchestra
Enigma Orchestra

Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes began the concert. Astoundingly rich in the crystal-clear musical depictions of the ocean, most of us know the Interludes by the famous fourth movement, “Storm”. Wild in its evocation of the treacherous tempest-ridden sea, Britten’s writing is dramatic and imposing in the extreme. Its impending shadow, however, does little to obscure the preceding three movements, whose serene beauty contrasts spectacularly with the raging sublimity to come. Nevertheless, the approaching doom of the iron-clad clouds were never far, I fear, from the minds of the players, who navigated the stormy seas breathtakingly, but fared slightly less well on the placid, mirror-still surfaces of “Dawn”. “Sunday Morning” was slightly slower than usual: the high-pitched jerky rhythms dazzling rather than sparkling, though the texture was dominated somewhat by the tubular bells – a fault (dare I say) of the acoustic rather than any particularly belligerent bell-ringers. The bell-like tones in “Moonlight” were less domineering, scored as they are for flute and harp, and later trumpet and glockenspiel, and contrasted delightfully with the satisfyingly stable, homely chorale passages in the lower brass. It was, however, all building up to the overwhelming crashing of waves as the “Storm” hit; the players obviously relished the treacherous waters, the splashes and crashes and bass drum smashes.

More of the same lay in store in John Pickard’s Sea-Change. Pickard is Professor of Composition at Bristol University, and this exciting early work bears the fingerprints of much of his later orchestral writing, including prominent percussion parts and booming, bass-heavy passages. However, it is a high-pitched, alternating two-note motif that pervades the work throughout, beginning in the winds and taken up dramatically by unison upper stings. Descending, dovetailing brass lines ring out like big organ chords, muted trombones bark, and later sound (un-muted) like foghorns under crushingly loud orchestral stabs complete with anvil (alas, not the blacksmith, falling-from-the-sky type). The orchestra excelled in this highly gripping, heart-racing music, succumbing to an inexorable slow march featuring snare drum and bass ostinati before rising again to a climactic unison ending. The interval provided a much-needed opportunity to surface for air.

The second half was dedicated to the music of Debussy and began with Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. After a slightly unsteady start (lilting flute solo notwithstanding), the orchestra settled nicely into the lushness of Debussy’s harmonies, glowingly evoking the lazy warm sun shining on the faun’s sleepy luxuriance. However, towards the end some of the tentative playing that had surfaced in the more exposed moments of the Britten recurred: showing, perhaps, a slight deficit in rehearsal time for these less expectedly challenging passages.

If we were enticed to slumber in the glow of the Prélude, the fresh sea spray of the opening of La mer certainly roused us. Debussy’s shimmering seascape was allegedly inspired by his view from an Eastbourne hotel room, but what with the movement’s frequent pentatonic passages, it’s often less Eastbourne than East Asia in the first movement, “De l’aube à midi sur la mer”. Although the cellos struggled with the intonation of their chorale section, the horns and trombones were more assured, and led the music satisfyingly into a big climax that ends the movement. The second movement, “Jeux de vagues”, contrasts playful, gambolling waves with mesmeric moments for harps over a sparse texture, and was elusively beautiful, if not immersive. Debussy’s whole work ebbs and flows like the tide, and I frequently found my concentration doing the same. Yet it was particularly in the final movement, “Dialogue du vent et de la mer”, that my mind drifted, as did the violins at times, especially with their stratospheric sustained harmonics. This is not to say the performance was not engaging, but that this elusive music requires an overwhelming orchestral synthesis and huge concentration in order to engulf the listener fully. This was achieved, nonetheless, in a fabulous ending, where the music gains magnificent expansiveness, and from the bass upwards, the whole orchestra is caught up in a great swaying motion. It may not have always been plain sailing, but after braving the seas in an exciting and entirely pleasurable voyage, Weaver steered the Enigma ship safely into harbour.