BBC PHILHARMONIC Bridgewater Hall (November 8)
IT’S always fascinating to hear the great favourites of British music conducted by those from another tradition – Vassily Sinaisky’s interpretations with the BBC Philharmonic in the past have been great experiences – so the Phil’s present principal guest conductor’s take on Elgar and Walton was eagerly awaited.
John Storgårds has the same ability to illuminate aspects of the music others easily miss, and so it proved with his reading of that most Elgarian of Elgar favourites, the Cockaigne overture.
Its portrait of London life may have lacked the pictorialism and sentiment our own maestros and traditions instinctively bring to it, but the uninhibited approach to its fruity tuttis, the meticulous adherence to its roller-coaster dynamics, the disentangling of its interwoven counterpoints, and above all the flair and skill brought to the expression of its long-breathed phrases, were all a joy. After a strangely cautious beginning, Storgårds built it to something very splendid indeed.
Nielsen’s violin concerto, which followed, was probably more his instinctive territory – the soloist, Alina Pogostkina, brought a formidable technique to it, though she was most at home when on her own in the cadenzas rather than synchronizing with conductor and orchestra. The first movement one, in particular, was the best part of the whole performance: she made the most of its strident, energetic display as well as its lyrical gestures.
Back to British music for the second half, with baritone David Soar and the City of
joining the Philharmonic for Walton’s blockbuster cantata, Belshazzar’s Feast. Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus
The chorus’s contribution was at times a weak spot here. Not particularly numerous, they were not always totally confident either, and though they had their moments when singing unaccompanied they were sometimes unable to make much impact through the curtain of orchestral sound in front of them. Even the shout of ‘Slain!’, which should send a shock wave through the listener, was mezzo-forte as heard in the hall.
David Soar sang clearly and authoritatively – if not quite cutting the figure of an Old Testament prophet that some singers can create in this piece – and the orchestra played their part with gusto, resourcefulness and skill. But Storgårds’ ability to find interest in the details of every texture was perhaps the greatest virtue of a reading which was somewhat low on dramatic atmosphere and more of a showpiece for orchestra than anything else.
THIS concert was a thoughtful attempt to remember the centenary of the First World War through music written at the time. Not just any music: Butterworth, Elgar, Bax and Sibelius each had startlingly original things to say in that traumatic time.
George Butterworth was dead by the time August 1916 was over (in the
of the Somme), and yet his orchestral rhapsody,
A Shropshire Lad, seems to tell us how it felt to be a survivor. Based on
Housman’s poems about the slain of the Boer War, it shares with them a strange
prescience of things to come. The Hallé’s playing of this with Sir Mark Elder
is on record already and about the loveliest reading of it there could be – and
it was again, with glowing colours and vivid contrasts.
Elgar’s big piece for soprano, choir and orchestra, For The Fallen (setting Laurence Binyon’s poetry, including the famous ‘They shall grow not old …’ verse) was written while the slaughter was still going on. Its fascination lies in its agonised attempt to capture a faith that there was some value in all the sacrifice – the only way to think of it then, obscene though it may seem from our distance in history.
Sir Mark was alert to every nuance of drama in its pages, and was rewarded with dramatic and weighty singing from the Hallé Choir, as well as profound meditative moments from both choir and orchestra. No lugubrious solemnity here – the marching feet were jaunty and the funeral music proud as Siegfried’s.
Rachel Nicholls’ powerful, warm soprano brought nobility and humanity to the declamation, and the final pages reached a height of feeling that seared the soul.
After that, Bax’s In Memoriam seemed more a recollection in tranquillity, and its soaring melody a tribute to the human spirit (as indeed it was – he was commemorating an Irish patriot whom we shot in 1916). The Hallé are masters of this kind of sentiment, and the darting woodwind over soft-sweet strings were hauntingly beautiful.
Then Sibelius’s fifth – a favourite now, but in 1915 music that struggled for optimism in a bleak landscape. There was life in Sir Mark’s reading from the start, and, notwithstanding moments of slipperiness, by the time the symphony reached its triumphant end, the laments and menacing dissonances that almost overtake it had all fallen into place – as they should.