New BBC Phil Principal Guest Conductor presides over British music concert

02/02/2017

Foulds, Bridge, Walton, Arnold: Alexandra Wood (violin), BBC Philharmonic / Ben Gernon (conductor), MediaCityUK, Salford. 31.01.2017. (RB)

Foulds – Le Cabaret Overture (1925)
Bridge – Summer (1914)
Walton – Violin Concerto (1939)
Arnold – Electra (1963)

The latest instalment in the BBC’s extended British music season saw Ben Gernon on the podium. The concert, broadcast live, was also the occasion for Simon Webb, the BBCPO General Manager, to announce Mr Gernon’s appointment as the orchestra’s Phil’s Principal Guest Conductor. This came after the rompingly ebullient little overture, Le Cabaret, written by extraordinarily gifted Mancunian, John Foulds (1880-1939). It is a euphoric piece that combines Offenbach’s froth and a peculiarly surging British verve—great work from the horns and cellos. In this Gernon followed in the footsteps of Kenneth Alwyn, Barry Wordsworth and Rumon Gamba.

Le Cabaret is to Foulds’ April England—heard in Salford Quays a couple of months back—what Frank Bridge’s Summer is to Enter Spring. Many will know of Frank Bridge’s change of idiom following the Great War. His Summer falls into his pre-War lyrical phase. This poet of the orchestra spins the most fragile threads in Summer, a work that “fits” with Bridge’s The Sea, the first two quartets and his Two Jefferies Poems—especially The Story of My Heart. Gernon, who conducted without baton throughout, handled this diaphanous score with great care but this did not mean that he lost touch with the exultancy of the music. This is a summer picture whose insect and bird chatter is always fresh. It is rather comparable with the hesitant mobile beauty of the start of a Finnish work contemporary with Summer: Levi Madetoja’s Second Symphony. Summer’s lightness of touch and transparency spells early afternoon rather than the sultry heat that you can hear in Suk and Schoeck or in Havergal Brian’s Symphony No. 5 Wine of Summer. Meticulous attention to balance had the harp resonating out about above the violins.

Alexandra Wood was the soloist Walton’s Violin Concerto. She led the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in her mid-teens. A frequent duo partner with Huw Watkins, she has premiered violin concertos by Hugh Wood and Charlotte Bray amongst much else. She makes a strongly fixed impression and her note production is steady, unwavering. Avoiding any hint of the tremulous in a work that invites such indulgence, the results are all the more passionate for such restraint: this is after all one of the twentieth century’s emotional pinnacles. It is understandable that there was emphatic applause at the close and at the end of the first movement.

The concert could easily have ended on that moving and exciting eminence but we then heard a rarity by Malcolm Arnold. There was no sign in his 15 minute Electra of the buffoon or the troubadour. Written between Arnold’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, this is a score of batteringly exciting volume and kinetic brutality. You might have expected an abbreviated orchestra in a Royal Ballet commission based on the Sophocles play, but at least in this version the orchestra was ferociously large, with impenitently hammered drum salvos at the start and end. There are a few very short episodes of quiet but they do not spell remission or anything approaching contentment. The Furies drive this one-act ballet which links with the nightmare pages of the two flanking Arnold symphonies. It also had me thinking of a number of non-British scores that inhabit the same world: Barber’s Medea, Nystroem’s The Tempest and Giannini’s Medead.

If this mix is to be typical of Gernon’s concerts with the BBCPO—and I do hope that it is—then we are in for some memorable concerts.

Rob Barnett

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