Gardner’s Beautifully Balanced Belshazzar’s Feast is a Highlight of his Philharmonia Concert

06/11/2017

Elgar, Joseph Phibbs and Walton: Mark van de Wiel (clarinet), Roland Wood (baritone), Philharmonia Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 5.11.17. (AS)

Elgar – Overture, In the South (Alassio), Op.50

Joseph Phibbs – Clarinet Concerto (London premiere)

WaltonBelshazzar’s Feast

Some devoted Elgarians rather look down on In the South, finding the episode that creates a sound picture of Roman legions crossing a viaduct in particular to be coarse and repetitive. But others, including this writer, find it a stirring passage and revel in the work’s long sweeping melodies, its many uplifting, grand gestures and the exquisite canto populare, played on solo viola – most beautifully on this occasion by Yukiko Ogura.

Edward Gardner fairly tore into the overture’s exhilarating opening, choosing an excitingly fast but not over-hectic tempo. The performance continued at a high velocity, with some relaxation in the work’s more lyrical sections, which Gardner shaped with care and evident affection. As a whole it was a most impressive piece of conducting, with fine playing from the Philharmonia – much better, in fact, than one has heard from this orchestra for some time.

Joseph Phibbs’s new Clarinet Concerto was commissioned by Mark van de Wiel, principal clarinet of the Philharmonia, the Philharmonia itself and Malmö Live Konzerthus. It is in four movements, of which the first opens effectively in a quiet, atmospheric fashion and then expands into a colourfully jazzy main section, piquantly orchestrated. The style is quite conservative in nature, and easy to assimilate. A lengthy cadenza leads into a fast second movement, again with jazzy elements, complex patterns and off beat accents. The succeeding third movement is slow, rather austerely different in style, and the finale returns to fast, jabbing phrases and much general busyness, not necessarily of any immediately discernible consequence. If only the standard of invention of the first movement had been maintained one would be able to welcome this piece as a desirable  – if not particularly significant – addition to the clarinet concerto repertoire. Phibbs has certainly set his soloist some formidable technical challenges, met with consummate, almost amazing skill by Mark van de Wiel, who also displayed a most beautiful, liquid quality of tone in those sections of the work where he was allowed to be lyrically expansive.

How good it is that the Philharmonia Chorus now sings with the Philharmonia Orchestra again, after a period in which the two bodies were estranged. The Chorus is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary this season: the original 1957 body of singers set new standards in its day, and on this evidence standards are again very high under the leadership of the current Chorus Master Stefan Bevier. The quality of singing in Belshazzar’s Feast was in fact wonderfully high, both technically and in terms of tone quality. Thus Edward Gardner was at once in a good situation through having such a vocal group and an in-form orchestra at his disposal, and he took full advantage.

A performance of the work at this year’s Proms had been disappointing (click here), since it was supercharged and too excitable, with over rapid tempi and a consequent loss of those characteristically sharp, Waltonian rhythms, in turns fiercely aggressive and pungently jaunty. Edward Gardner is well immersed in Walton’s music, and he didn’t fall into the same exhibitionist trap. He certainly drove the music pretty hard, but he also always gave it room to breathe naturally. His tempi at all points seemed just right, his evocation of atmosphere in the dramatic sections totally authentic. It was a beautifully balanced reading, all the contrasting episodes sharply delineated and drawn together to make up a superbly effective entity.

Most baritone soloists find pitching problems in the ‘Babylon was a great city’ sequence, but Roland Wood managed its difficulties better than most, and he gave a generally authoritative, firmly stated, dramatically effective account of the solo part. His enunciation was very clear, and made the provision of text surtitles throughout the work almost unnecessary when he was singing. His expert contribution was a vital component in the success of the performance.

Alan Sanders

For more about the Philharmonia Chorus click here.

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