Hotfoot from Wyastone in Monmouth, where Kenneth Woods's new orchestral arrangement of Brahms was recorded for Nimbus, the English Symphony Orchestra and Woods brought the work for its world premiere to Cheltenham Town Hall, together with Elgar’s Violin Concerto, Alexander Sitkovetsky the wonderful soloist. Inspired by Woods's charismatic direction, the ESO brought depth, clarity and brilliance to this programme. It was a joyous occasion.
In recent years “the international orchestra of Elgar country” has been reborn; since Woods was appointed in 2013 the ESO has presented and recorded its first full-length opera, John Joubert's Jayne Eyre, released a succession of highly-praised recordings and launched its ambitious commission-and-record nine new Symphonies.
In his Brahms arrangement, Woods proves to be a master orchestrator, delivering a score of wide-ranging expression and colour. Having at first wondered whether he should “look to Schoenberg's orchestration” of the Opus 25 G-minor Piano Quartet as a model, or be concerned that comparisons may be made, he chose to avoid listening to or looking at Schoenberg's score until after he had completed his. After all, as he writes, Schoenberg's arrangement had been far from his mind when the idea for orchestrating the A-major Quartet came to him “in a flash of inspiration” whilst coaching at the Ischia Chamber Music Festival – nine years ago.
Woods brings glorious warmth to Opus 26, and this could well pass as an original Brahms orchestral score, particularly the first three movements. As a whole, nothing raucous or overblown, none of the clashed cymbals or xylophone of Schoenberg, fine though they may be in their context. Yes the Scherzo is dynamic and bold, but only in the exuberant Finale, especially at the very end, is the orchestra allowed off their leads. This is a masterpiece of pacing, and one which will for sure in the future delight audiences everywhere.