Another all-English John Wilson concert at Salford Quays

23/12/2016

Bax, Vaughan Williams: BBC Philharmonic / John Wilson (conductor), BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 22.12.2016 (RB)

Bax – Tintagel (1917)
Vaughan Williams – A London Symphony (Symphony No. 2) (1914)

Finding any Bax on a concert programme is a rare boon, but if Bax does get a place then programmers usually dictate that it must be Tintagel. Had it been a Bax symphony, it would have been the Third. These are the norms of choice, difficult to shake off. Although there have been exceptions, the general sway is in these directions. Indeed John Wilson, who so inspirationally conducted this concert, not so long ago did The Garden of Fand, and this is his second Tintagel (Philharmonia, January 2015)—in fact, his third, as he has conducted the work with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

While I wish Wilson had done November Woods, In the Faery Hills or either of the first two Northern Ballads, this was a very fine performance in Tintagel‘s centenary year. It was also the first time that I had heard the work live. The direction and playing were alert and—although this is a busy score—aspects of the concatenation of details and restless tempi changes stood out. The French horns, for example, registered strongly in their lapping-lulling ppp ostinato at the start as well as in their commanding heroics, echoing that opening ostinato, at the close. Detail is one thing, but Wilson and the BBCPO also had the audience feeling the hectic crash and hurtling onrush of this most oceanic-erotic of scores.

Wilson, mobile on the podium, eager and emotionally transparent in response to the music, is a natural Baxian. He is, however, working on a long-term Vaughan Williams symphony cycle, pre-eminently with the Philharmonia. His reading of RVW’s Second Symphony had me thinking less of the specifics of Edwardian London and more of the work’s strong lyric attributes. Just one example came in the form of the heartbreaking “conversation” between the two harps and Yuri Torchinsky’s first violin. It pre-echoes the “new-made double grave” scene in Dona Nobis Pacem, lying two decades in the future. Wilson established a sappy affinity with the audience, so applause followed the end of each of the four movements—and this through no want of knowledge of the work. The measured “breathing” of the second movement included yet more time-suspending playing from the principal horn. The third movement, clearly affected by Petrushka‘s Easter Fair, ended quietly in something that was half hum, half glow. The finale was presented with the fullest of full hearts and inward string playing of silvery complexion. A man of contrasts, Wilson is best known for his Hollywood and Broadway revivals at the Proms. That said, he brought to these two works as much fizz, zest, insight and compassion as he brought to Franz Waxman’s Ride to Dubno (Taras Bulba) at the Proms a couple of years back.

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on Radio 3. There was, as usual, some patching to be done to, as Wilson observed, ensure the licence-payers get their money’s worth. A little detail from those few re-touchings was that, having located the point from which the patch was to start, he would lead the orchestra in with “one-two-three-four” …; not something I have heard before at Salford Quays.

If you are a follower of Bax or Vaughan Williams then you will want to know that Wilson can be heard with the CBSO in Birmingham on 10 May 2017 in November Woods and RVW’s Tudor Portraits, and that John Gibbons is doing Fand with the Ealing SO on 15 July 2017 at St Barnabas Church, Pitshanger Lane.

Rob Barnett

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