Striking a Blow (or Two) for English Music

United StatesUnited States Tippett, Bruch, and Elgar: Michael Francis (conductor), Vadim Gluzman (violin), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 14.3.2013 (BJ)

Tippett: Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26
Elgar: Enigma Variations

As an Englishman who has lived for decades among the uncomprehending ex-colonials, I hope I may be forgiven for finding the two works that began and ended this program at once refreshing and potentially revelatory in character. Michael Tippett’s Ritual Dances and Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, while vastly different in style, utterly subvert the common perception in America—and admittedly elsewhere too—of the English as a costive people, incapable of expressing emotion, and averse to sensual indulgence. Both works are unrestrainedly emotional, and both revel unashamedly in orchestral sound of the utmost luxuriance.

The Ritual Dances are taken from the first of Tippett’s five operas, The Midsummer Marriage, in which Joan Sutherland, as a rising young soprano, first made her mark in 1955, a few years before she became “La Stupenda.” Credit for the success of the dances on this occasion must go not only to the composer, but to the resplendent performance guest conductor Michael Francis drew from the Seattle Symphony. The set provides a tremendous work-out for every section of the orchestra, and the players, clearly rehearsed to a fare-thee-well, vividly realized the sheer glowing sensuousness and euphony of Tippett’s score. The big moments were projected with warmth and glittering color, there were some coruscating violin lines from the first and second violins’ front desk players, spotlighted in a concertino-line capacity, and Christopher Sereque and Laura DeLuca shaped their clarinet duets with mellifluous aplomb.

It would perhaps have enhanced the audience’s appreciation of the contrasts among the first three dances if, instead of a vague statement that “Tippett imagined the choreography of each dance to involve some sort [of] hunt or chase,” with an allusion to the theme of sexual pursuit, the program annotator or whoever puts the title page together had bothered to divulge their specific scenarios: respectively, “The hound chases the hare,” “The otter chases the fish,” and “The hawk chases the bird.” But never mind: the music made a sufficient impact aside from such details, and the audience, though not as numerous as it might have been, responded with evidently open-minded enthusiasm.

At the other end of the program, Elgar’s most popular (though not his most perfect) orchestral work obviously constituted much less of a novelty for the Seattle public. It too received a performance of notable, often deeply stirring eloquence. The cello section in particular is sounding better than ever these days, since Efe Baltacigil arrived last season to occupy the first chair.

Remembering performances of Enigma by one of its greatest interpreters, I was struck by the contrast in visual style between Francis’s graceful and expansive gestures and the much more restrained manner of Sir Adrian Boult. The latter, who is depicted in handcuffs over the caption “non troppo” in Gerard Hoffnung’s marvelous cartoon collection The Maestro, once recalled how, when he was watching Arthur Nikisch conduct in Leipzig in the early years of the 20th century, he had the feeling that if the baton were ever to rise above the level of the conductor’s head, the roof of the concert hall would collapse.

And yet, visuals aside, there was nothing costive about Boult’s interpretation; as beautiful an account as Francis produced of the climactic variation, “Nimrod,” Boult made of it an even more overwhelmingly cathartic experience. Still, Francis must be heartily praised for his unerring realization of the gingerly, walking-on-eggshells delicacy with which the “Dorabella” intermezzo that directly follows shrinks back in reaction to the overt emotion of “Nimrod.”.

The evening’s concerto, Bruch’s No. 1 for violin, is the product of a very different world—late-19th-century Germany—from Elgar’s turn-of-the-century England. It’s true that a phrase toward the end of Bruch’s slow movement was to find an echo in the corresponding movement of Elgar’s much bigger and more complex violin concerto. But Bruch made a curious concert companion for the two English composers.

With some elegant work from Mark Robbins in the important first-horn part, the orchestral playing here too was excellent, though I found the tone of the first-violin section a tad less polished than it usually is. (Presumably the bulk of the preparation time had gone to the unfamiliar Tippett.) In any case, what this work, like any concerto, depends on most is the playing of the soloist.

Vadim Gluzman is a violinist of considerable talent. His performance was immensely accomplished, yet I didn’t love it. There seemed, especially in that rapturous slow movement, to be rather too much nervous tension in his tone and phrasing, instead of the exultant and expansive richness that the music surely calls for. But if, as a result, Bruch’s really delightful concerto paled somewhat next to the English works, this detracted little from the pleasure afforded by an intriguing program, for the most part masterfully conducted and played.

Bernard Jacobson