In a Splendid Marathon the Cellist Wins the Gold Medal

United KingdomUnited Kingdom A London Marathon Finale Concert: Steven Isserlis (cello), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Cheltenham Town Hall 15.7.2012 (JQ)

Elgar: Cockaigne (In London Town)
Hannah Kendall (b. 1984): Shard (first performance)
Holst: Hammersmith
Ireland: A London Overture
Elgar: Cello Concerto
Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony

To bring down the curtain on the 2012 Cheltenham Music Festival the organisers devised a substantial programme of English music, largely built around the theme of London. The exception to this theme was the Elgar Cello Concerto, which occupied the second of the concert’s three parts – though Stephen Johnson suggested one London connection in his excellent programme note. Fresh from his appearance at the First Night of the Proms the preceding Friday, former Festival Director, Martyn Brabbins was on the podium. The Festival brochure had suggested that if the audience found the prospect of a marathon daunting they could “think of this concert instead as a banquet of London’s musical riches laid before you”. Looked at the programme on paper in advance, I did wonder if so much music might prove a trifle indigestible but on the night itself it didn’t. Before discussing the concert itself I think it’s appropriate to salute the good sense of the Festival organisers who scheduled this long programme to begin at 5.00 pm. What a sensible idea for a Sunday concert! I’m sure the start time – as well as the attractive programme -was a factor in ensuring a full house.

Things got off to a fine start with a warm-hearted account of Cockaigne. The BSO seemed to relish playing the score. Brabbins phrased the lyrically passages affectionately and ensured there was ample vitality elsewhere. He brought out allthe colour in the work but what a shame that the Town Hall’s organ was not used to underpin the closing pages.

Hannah Kendall’s brand new, 5-minute orchestral work, Shard, takes its name from the new and provocative building that is the latest addition to the London skyline. We weren’t told anything about the music itself in the programme though we learned that Miss Kendall thinks the building itself is ‘a beacon, a beautiful glistening construction, catching and reflecting the light.’ I don’t know if the piece was “about” or “inspired by” the building. Frankly, it could have been “about” anything – or nothing. A large orchestra was employed, including, naturally, a good deal of percussion. The score was very busy with lots of jagged brass writing and very active woodwind figurations and the percussion section was kept gainfully employed. However, other than as an exercise in orchestral colour the piece seemed neither to have any real purpose nor to say anything. The building after which it is named will probably be around for a long time but I’m sorry to say that I doubt the same will be true of Hannah Kendall’s piece.

It was a clever idea to programme the Holst and Ireland items together since both have non-orchestral origins. Hammersmith began life as a piece for military band in 1930 and was orchestrated the following year. Ireland’s piece grew out of his Comedy Overture, which he wrote in 1934 for brass band and revised two years later as A London Overture. It’s a long time since I’ve heard the Holst and it was good to be reminded by this performance what a fine piece it is. Brabbins drew some atmospheric playing from the BSO as the Prelude stirred to life from the depths of the orchestra. Later, when the music became livelier he injected excellent vigour into the proceedings. The only snag was that because the Town Hall stage is rather compact the horns, brass and most of the percussion were ranged in tiers above and behind the rest of the orchestra. As a result of this arrangement their contributions were at times somewhat overpowering both here and in other parts of the programme. Like the Holst, the Ireland piece was given a good performance. The work was a welcome choice in the fiftieth anniversary year of the composer’s death. The “cheeky chappie” allegro material was bright and breezy but what really caught my ear was the way in which the central lyrical stretch of the work was warmly phrased and Brabbins very rightly singled out the principal horn player for a separate bow afterwards.

Following an interval we heard Elgar’s Cello Concerto in which the soloist was Steven Isserlis who has been artist in residence at the Festival. This may have been the main attraction for many in the audience and I doubt they were disappointed for this was the most moving performance of the work that I can recall hearing in a very long time. In the first movement Isserlis conveyed the wistful melancholy of the music yet this was never artificially contrived by pulling the music out of shape; at all times he and Martyn Brabbins maintained a good forward momentum. Isserlis balanced the emotional side of the movement very well, playing with fine feeling but no over-indulgence. Here, as elsewhere, his tone was gloriously rich. The quicksilver second movement was dashed off with the virtuosity one would expect at this level but also with wit.

It was the slow movement that really started to set apart what had been up to now a very fine performance and place it into the special category. Isserlis made it a simple but profound elegy, playing with deep feeling and dignity. He appeared to be deeply moved as he played and though I’m sure his concentration never faltered he seemed to me to be in another place as the movement drew to a close. Brabbins, a perceptive and supportive accompanist, was with him throughout. The finale opened with an impassioned recitative from Isserlis and thereafter he mingled passion and sensitivity in his playing. Towards the end of the movement the extended reflective episode was ardently phrased and when Isserlis reached his rapt reminiscence of the slow movement I confess my eyes prickled. This was a deeply eloquent and dedicated performance of the concerto and one could only admire the artistry of Steven Isserlis and his grasp of the work. Though I’ve focused on the soloist it would be wrong not to acknowledge the high pedigree of the orchestral accompaniment. The BSO played exceptionally well and Brabbins was an alert accompanist, “with” his soloist at all times. Nowhere was this more evident than in the tricky transition between the first two movements. No matter how many times you’ve done it this must be the very devil to conduct and the way in which Steven Isserlis was positioned relative to the podium must have made eye contact very difficult but it all hung together perfectly.

After a second interval we returned for Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony. I’m sure it’s possible to pick holes in the symphonic structure of this work but I love every bar of it. That said, RVW was right to prune it. The recording by Richard Hickox of the original score (review), though fascinating, showed that while some lovely music was lost thereby the work benefitted from being tightened up. Martyn Brabbins conducted the revised version, which is normally played. It’s a colourful, eventful work and Brabbins brought out every facet of RVW’s score with authority and energy. The teeming first movement was vividly played – at times the loudest passages were almost too big for the hall’s acoustic – and the orchestra showed finesse in the quieter passages. Excellent atmosphere was generated in the second movement, a highly poetic nocturne. Though there are many quiet pages in this movement – and these were done sensitively – there are also some ardent climaxes and these were thrust home, Brabbins conducting with great sweep. I admired the delicacy of the playing in the mercurial scherzo. Much of the symphony is an affectionate portrait of the capital but, as Stephen Johnson very rightly said in his notes, there was a darker side to London in those days – as there is now. The anguished cry with which the finale opens more than hints at this dark underbelly and Brabbins and the BSO brought off this and the solemn slow march superbly. The subsequent allegro was fiery – more hints of the dark side? – and Brabbins racked up the tension until the three-fold climax of the movement, each one more powerful than its predecessor. The quiet tolling of the Westminster Chimes came as a relief and then the orchestra delivered beautifully the wonderfully atmospheric epilogue – with some residual menace in the lower brass – to conclude an excellent performance. How shrewd to open and close the programme with such vivid and different portrayals of London at the turn of the century by two of our greatest composers.

So, in closing what has been, by all accounts, a most successful festival, Cheltenham paid a fine and highly enjoyable Jubilee Year tribute to London. You might almost call it A Capital Celebration!

John Quinn