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Review – Tim Orpen and John Reid at Octagon Music Society – two of the brightest young stars of the country's musical scene

Octagon Music Society, Tony Bramley-Harker

Of all the individual instruments of the orchestra, it’s probably the clarinet which exhibits the widest range of musical expression – played fortissimo, it can pierce through any surrounding textures, played pianissimo, it can vanish into the faintest whisper: at the top of it’s range, it can be bright, sunny, almost hysterical, yet in the lowest register, the sound can be haunting, threatening, or ineffably sad. So a concert of clarinet and piano music can cover not only the whole sound spectrum but also the widest range of emotional intensity.

Sunday afternoon’s concert at The Clarendon Muse brought two of the brightest young stars of the country’s musical scene in Tim Orpen and John Reid. Tim is currently principal clarinet of the Royal Northern Sinfonia centred at The Sage in Gateshead, and also holds the same position in the Aurora Orchestra, one of London’s cutting edge groups. John Reid is also a member of the Aurora and is one of the most in-demand and versatile of pianists. Their programme for OMS was therefore a superb showcase for two much praised musicians and also an opportunity to hear works from the core of the clarinet repertoire.

Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles were written during the dark days of the Second World War when Finzi was living at Ashmansworth near Newbury, As well as undertaking war service he was the creator of the Newbury String Orchestra with which he gave concerts in the local area and which provided respite from the rigours of war. A deeply sensitive and driven man, in the Bagatelles he pours out sunny and attractive music; they are not of great difficulty and often appear as young clarinettists’ testpieces – there were a number of clarinettists, young and old, in our audience who must have felt both envious and encouraged by Tim’s easy mastery. The beginning of the Prelude came at us as a blast of sheer exuberance, whilst the Romance which followed was poignant and appealing. These were an indication of the extraordinarily varied contrasts which Tim could summon. Tim spoke later of the ‘autumnal’ mood in the Brahms sonata which he later played – by contrast, the Finzi exuded a spring-like freshness and clarity which matched the afternoon outside.

Tim then played Three Pieces for solo clarinet by Stravinsky. These bore evidence of Stravinsky’s  interest in the latest developments in popular music and jazz. For Tim, they provided more opportunity to respond to a wide variety of tonal and dynamic, as well as technical, demands. Written as a gift to a patron and amateur clarinettist, they were ingeniously crafted miniatures, a far cry from the frenzy of The Rite of Spring.

John Reid returned, and together they played Schumann’s Three Fantasiestucke. If there was a theme running through their programme, it was centred on the German Romantic tradition with its love of fantasy and nature as seen by the literary world. This was High Romantic music to which Tim and John responded  with warmth.

The one extended piece of the afternoon was Brahms Second Sonata. Written in the last decade of his life,and after he appeared to have put down his pen in favour of retirement, Brahms became inspired to write once more by the playing of a German orchestral clarinettist, Richard Muhlfeld. Brahms wrote these two sonatas as well as other chamber music works under the renewed inspiration Muhlfeld gave him. All three movements are suffused with a lyricism and sense of longing – there doesn’t seem to be any word more appropriate than Tim’s ‘autumnal’. In this work, above all, the music calls for a sensitivity and rapport which showed Tim and John to be ideal partners and  musicians. John Reid, as OMS audiences will remember from a wonderful collaboration with violinist Thomas Gould some years ago, is a pianist who can match Tim for variety of colour. Their duetting in the third, variation, movement was of such unanimity that you could scarcely tell which instrument was playing as they tossed phrases from one to the other; it made for an extraordinarily moving performance. The piano part throughout calls for considerable virtuosity as well as attention to balance which John, ever sensitive, was always able to provide.

To allow Tim to recover from Brahms’ demands, and to prepare for his assault on The Carnival of Venice, John then played three more Schumann miniatures, from Forest Scenes, a return to the woods, atmospheric and brooding.

Alamiro Giampieri is one of those composers who is known, if at all, for just one piece – in this case, his variations on a trivial popular tune. It’s one of those high wire showpieces which make exorbitant demands on the player but reward him with little musical substance. Yet, in Tim’s hands, it was impossible not to marvel at the cascade of notes which he produced. Double stopping? the ear could almost believe it. Chords? Surely! High fun for all – oh! except poor John who accompanied dutifully, Sancho Panza to Don Quixote.

Although the musical content of the concert did not stray far from the standard repertoire, Tim and John gave the audience a highly satisfying afternoon of varied delights. They each introduced the works they were playing and talked with insight and easy humour. Both are musicians of much achievement and even greater promise: a large and appreciative audience will certainly remember their names.

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