Arts: Any colour you like so long as it's dark

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The Independent Culture
IN VARIOUS guises, the Norfolk and Norwich Festival has been on the go since 1770, and over the years composers have been happy to provide it with some high-profile pieces not lacking in subversive flavour. For the 1936 season, for example, Britten came up with Our Hunting Fathers, and Vaughan Williams with his earthy Five Tudor Portraits. At their first performances, both works raised a number of eyebrows.

Some 60 years on, that part of the East Anglian anatomy seems to have grown less flexible, to judge from the reaction to the new Cello Concerto, commissioned from this year's festival composer-in-residence, John Woolrich, and premiered by Steven Isserlis and the Philharmonia Orchestra at St Andrew's Hall on Saturday.

True, it was not a work in which epater le bourgeois was the game. None the less, it ran the gamut of aural stimuli, from high-pitched discords to veiled harmonic half-light.

These are some of the standard terms of Woolrich's musical language, now forged into a hefty span of music for cello and orchestra.This was not a piece to solve the imbalance of solo and ensemble by keeping the latter in the background. Yet it never lost its audience, who attentively followed its progress.

There was, indeed, plenty to be enjoyed, beginning with the artistry of Isserlis himself, on show in the appealing context of a never-before- heard work.

There was also fine orchestral playing, guided with elegant precision by the conductor Hugh Wolff. Though not much known this side of the Atlantic, he ought to be, not least for an infallible sense of tempo displayed in Brahms's St Anthony and Elgar's Enigma variations.

With so many variations around, plus a cello concerto, both forms well cultivated on these shores, the evening wore a slightly English mien. Woolrich's nod to the confessional vein of the Elgar concerto was the stricken, often painful tone of his own.

His programme note referred to the notion that the night sky is darkest just before the dawn, and to Jung's "darkness, darker than dark".

But it also spoke of relating the cello's various registers to regions of the orchestra; and the music, from the magnificent opening sweep of solo cello sinking from its highest note to its lowest, gave full play to changing orchestral colours.

Later, in a closely woven one-movement form, the opening returned on rugged brass to signal a return, or perhaps a corner turned. Many an oasis of reflective solo melody seemed like parts of a garden glimpsed through lancet windows.

For the listener, these partial glimpses were resolved in a notional view of the whole in the cello's quietly ethereal ending. This is a major concerto for the instrument. It should be heard in London, soon.

Nicholas Williams