Prom 24 – Tasmin Little shines in Elgar’s Concerto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar, Grainger, and Richard Strauss: Tasmin Little (violin), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis. Royal Albert Hall, London 2.8.2011 (CG)

Elgar:There is sweet music op. 53 no. 1 (1907)
Elgar : Violin Concerto in B Minor op. 61 (1909-10)
Grainger: Irish Tune from County Derry (1902, arr. 1912)
Grainger: Suite ‘In a Nutshell’ (1916) – first performance at the Proms.
Richard Strauss : Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche op. 28 (1894-5)

When thinking about Elgar’s Violin Concerto, my mind goes back to the BBC’s Maida Vale studios where, back in the 60’s, I used to attend the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Sunday afternoon concerts. The violinist on one particular occasion was Alan Loveday, who had emigrated from New Zealand as a child prodigy and later became a leading member of Neville Marriner’s Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields. His performance of the Elgar concerto, seemingly not available on record, moved me profoundly and I believe he had mastered the work’s central emotional character – grandness coupled with an all-important heart-rending sweetness. Later, I got to know Yehudi Menuhin’s famous recording of 1932, with the composer conducting, and several other interpretations. A glance at a record catalogue now reveals that this concerto is one of the most recorded; American, Russian, European, Japanese, and Korean violinists have tackled it, including some extremely famous names; Heifetz, Kyung Wha Chung, Nigel Kennedy, and Zukerman to name but four. And the first performance was given by the work’s dedicatee, no less a figure than the legendary Fritz Kreisler, who had asked Elgar to write him a concerto in 1907. Even when Elgar’s work in general has been out of fashion, the concerto has continued to be played. It has been partially eclipsed, periodically, by the much later Cello Concerto of 1919, but it is probable that it remained Elgar’s own favourite, and not only because the first performance of the Cello Concerto was apparently under rehearsed and shambolic.

The concerto is a challenge on many, many levels; a gigantic piece, a real concerto of Brahmsian proportions. It demands complete virtuosity in the fiery passages, but also extreme musical sensitivity, and the various interpretations available tend to emphasise the brilliant at the partial expense of the quietly emotional, or vice-versa. Fortunately for us, there were no disappointments tonight; Tasmin Little has already recorded the concerto and clearly knows it backwards. Her playing was completely confident, and not just technically so – she handled the gorgeously romantic passages with a marvellously warm tone, always expressive but never sentimental, and her tempi seemed, to this listener, just right. If anything, she majored on the introspective, but this is not to suggest that her command of the difficult, dramatic passages was ever less than brilliant. In all this she was partnered quite excellently by Sir Andrew Davis who drew from the BBC Symphony Orchestra strength in the more robust orchestral passages, as well as a touching tenderness in the quieter moments. The slow movement was a pure delight – not too slow but simply hushed and softly expressive – and it rose to its impassioned climax perfectly naturally. For me, the heart of the work lies in the extraordinary cadenza towards the very end of the work, as the violin remembers themes from earlier and the strings of the orchestra throb with pizzicato tremolando. It is one of Elgar’s most touching, original, and effective passages, and tonight it was utterly spellbinding. What superb music making.

The concert had opened with small scale Elgar; There is sweet music, is one of his ‘choral songs,’ composed for choral societies and festivals, and is remarkable in that the male singers are notated in G major, but their female colleague’s music is in A flat major; Elgar was thus paving the way for other composers to take up the cudgels of polytonality. It is a sleepy piece with, apparently, 5/4 and 10/4 time signatures helping to produce a somewhat odd ‘blurred’ effect. It was well done by the BBC Singers, and a million miles in style and content from the grandeur of the concerto to follow. Rather interesting programme planning, too, to open with Elgar’s private world before embarking on the bigger, more public statement.

Further oddities were provided by the two pieces by Percy Grainger, the first of these being a short setting of the famous Londonderry Air, sung by the BBC Singers This was a Proms favourite for several years following its first performance by Grainger himself in 1913, and it has recently been revived. Personally I find it rather unremarkable, but the same could not be said of the second item, In a Nutshell, which proved to be something of a revelation. Grainger almost always used folksong as the basis of his work, but here there is almost none. Moreover, the music and especially the orchestration of it, is highly unusual and original. The four movements are sharply contrasted, but achieve some measure of unity by the use of some extraordinary percussion instruments, and a common theme of diversity, central to Grainger’s thinking. The first, Arrival Platform Humlet, is supposed to represent the sort of thing one might hum on a station platform waiting for one’s sweetheart to arrive from foreign parts; it’s very lively and is essentially a monody orchestrated for various instrumental groups. (Grainger even prepared an alternative version for solo viola alone!) The second, Gay but wistful, is an evocation of the music hall – and yes, it’s gay but wistful. The third, Pastorale, is the longest and most interesting; after a folk-like melody played on the oboe, things become progressively disturbed, with cross-rhythms and bitonality much in evidence, as well as some strange specially manufactured tuned percussion instruments. It is terrifically exciting before it settles into a rather Scriabin-esque quiet ending. The last movement, which bears the title The ‘Gum Sucker’s’ March, refers to the practice of some natives of the state of Victoria, Australia, of sucking the gum from eucalyptus leaves to provide refreshment from the great heat. It is short and sweet and jolly, and sounded quite American to me. In fact it struck me that the whole work has some American tinges, and I was frequently reminded of Aaron Copland, or perhaps the jazzy pieces by Constant Lambert. Davis and the BBCSO performed this music, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the unjustly neglected composer’s death, with huge panache.

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche , Strauss’s fifth large tone poem, has always been a concert favourite. Davis’s was a terrific performance, with the BBCSO once again excelling in all departments. Fun, quirky, and a showpiece for almost everyone taking part, it was great to hear all of Strauss’s kaleidoscopic colours presented so vividly, and the intricate counterpoint so clearly defined. Stephen Bryant’s solo violin, Andrew Webster’s E flat clarinet, and Nicholas Korth’s principal horn deserve special mention, but everyone taking part helped to confirm that the BBCSO is a terrific orchestra currently at the very top of its game.

A brilliant concert, then, marred for me by two niggles.

Niggle one: the coughing at this year’s Proms is out of control. At times you begin to wonder if the entire audience needs to visit the A & E department of the nearest hospital, but when you observe the coughers more closely, you realise that mostly they’re idle coughs with no attempt whatever at stifling. It is time for an announcement before each concert asking people not to cough unless absolutely necessary, and then, please, to cough into a handkerchief, a coat sleeve or ANYTHING!

Niggle two: there was clapping between each movement of the Elgar concerto, and again during In a Nutshell. It is unnecessary, interrupts any continuity of thought, and is not what the composer wanted. So I also think it’s time for an announcement suggesting that applause be saved until the very end of each work.

Christopher Gunning