United Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Elgar: Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (Vioin) Philharmonia Orchestra / Andrew Davis (conductor), The Anvil, Basingstoke, 11.5.2013.
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Elgar: Overture: In the South (Alassio) Op.50
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.2 ‘London’
Sir Andrew Davis is a lucky man. He clearly loves his work. You can tell this because he beams with barely contained delight at just about every moment he is conducting. From the instant he bustles towards the podium, to hugging the soloist, to enthusiastically singling out members of the orchestra for special applause. The orchestra, in this case the Philharmonia, are old friends and colleagues – further cause for rejoicing – and indeed the friendship here even extends to the programme itself with music that has long been in Sir Andrew’s repertoire and indeed forms part of his very extended discography. And indeed that familiarity showed with performances carefully prepared and well executed in the way that can only be achieved with music that is thoroughly ‘in your bones’ with a heritage of live performances to refer back to.
My only – perhaps slightly ungrateful – observation is that the result is a sequence of deeply affectionate performances which somehow miss the profundity of true greatness. The Philharmonia’s leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay stepped up from the front chair to play the solo part in Vaughan Wiliams’ The Lark Ascending to open the concert. Of course, with this orchestra – albeit in its New Philharmonia guise – there is a noble tradition of leaders doing just this with Hugh Bean’s still-glorious recording with Sir Adrian Boult. In fact Visontay recalled Bean in other ways. He played the opening rapt violin cadenza with a beautifully clear and unforced tone. His held, almost reticent, approach served to emphasise the nostalgic/pastoral element that helps cement this work’s popularity near the top of Classic FM’s top 100. Even liner note writer Wendy Thompson toed the standard party line of pastoral idyll as though that were all this and similar Vaughan Williams works are about. Both this piece and the Symphony in the second half were conceived pre-World War I but reached their final/published form post-war. Wilfrid Mellers in his book Vaughan Williams and the Vision of Albion makes a case for a far more complex interpretation of the key Vaughan Williams ‘pastoral’ works but that is a discussion for another place.
Davis conducted the entire concert without a baton which brought very occasional moments of ensemble problems. One such was at the very beginning of this piece – the wind and strings not quite speaking as one. Clearly Visontay has all the technique to deal with the considerable number of man-traps that lie hidden in this superficially simple work. The twice-recurring violin cadenza that frames the work could be an exercise in bow control under stress. He accomplished it beautifully – able to allow the lark to disappear from view with the merest wisp of tone. Elsewhere, he needs to believe that simplicity is the key and that simple passages are best played simply without the addition of rubato phrasing and note pointing. A case in point was around rehearsal letter H with the lark arabesquing and swooping around a tranquillo folk-inspired melody. Here and in the main central section of the work Davis was happy to allow tempi to flow forward. Indeed this was a characteristic of the entire concert – a refusal to wallow or sentimentalise. Of course one person’s wallow is another’s emotional release so it’s a tricky balance to get right. For the Lark I feel this is the right way – and this proved to be a most beautiful and gently ecstatic performance.
After the reduced near chamber orchestration of The Lark the full orchestra were on stage – with Visontay back in his leader’s chair for Elgar’s exuberantly wonderful concert overture In the South. This has surely the most confident and dynamic opening of any Elgar score and is more Straussian Tone Poem than concert curtain raiser. Davis has been conducting Elgar for just about all his professional life and this shows in his wholly natural understanding of the sense of ebb and flow that is central to a convincing performance of this and any of this composer’s scores. Partly due to the excellence of the hall’s acoustics but mainly down to the skill of conductor and players the brilliance of Elgar’s – self taught – orchestration came clear. So the muscularity of the central ‘Might of Rome’ section was thrillingly executed with powerful yet agile brass and full rich strings. Possibly, the most memorable section of the whole work is the moonlit Canto Popolare with strings, harp and glockenspiel gently lapping on some Mediterranean shore while a solo viola sings their nostalgic song. Here principal viola Rebecca Chambers played with a beautiful simplicity as did principal horn Nigel Black who took over the melody. It’s a prime example of Elgar’s ability to write music that is both simple and profound. Davis favoured clarity over sentiment – the old romantic in me could have taken just a little extra indulgence here and elsewhere. Davis’ clear-eyed approach made for an exciting and vigorous interpretation but one that just came up short on the epic/heroic stakes. The momentum he generated in the closing pages of the work – the Molto Allegro from rehearsal figure 55 – was very impressive too, aided greatly by the sheer quality of the instrument that is the Philharmonia. There were several personnel differences in the woodwind and brass especially from other concerts this series which detracted slightly from the sheer personality of individual solos but this was still very fine playing en masse.
Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.2 ‘London’ completed the concert. Although Vaughan Williams wanted it to be thought of more as a “Symphony by a Londoner” and that it needed to “stand or fall as ‘absolute’ music” the score abounds with pictorial allusions. The trick for the conductor is to weld the pictorial and symphonic elements together. Davis achieved this in great part again by a refusal to linger – whether in the misty dawn by the Thames, or in a City Churchyard or in Soho by night. Again there were interpretative swings and roundabouts – the clarity of the opening – the orchestra again demonstrating a stunning dynamic range – diminished the ghostly atmosphere of this most evocative passage with the Westminster chimes emerging from a Doré-like murk. Davis’ refusal to linger did give this a disappointingly literal feel. The explosive ‘cry’ which signals the start of the movement proper convulsed the music into action – the heavy brass, bass-drum and timpani having a visceral impact. The urgency of Davis’ basic tempo made this a brisk and forthright tour of the City. Exactly as in the Elgar the energy built excitingly to the closing pages of the movement but along the way the afore-mentioned Churchyard passage did not evoke the extraordinary beauty-in-stillness that in other hands it can – beautiful playing though here from the string principals. What did become clear was the sheer range and colour of Vaughan Williams’ orchestration. This is one of his largest and most overtly colourful scores – triple wind and extended percussion produce telling effects as does the use of both trumpets and cornets. I cannot think of another British score from this time – the original version dates from 1914 – that makes such imaginative and diverse use of symphonic timbre. Davis was especially good at pointing these colours and encouraging the players to bring out their individual lines when required.
The central pair of movements – slow followed by fast – are the most explicitly pictorial of all. Placed second Vaughan Williams described the slow movement as “Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon.” In the hushed opening Davis allowed the gentle solos from cor anglais and trumpet – the latter reminding me for quite the first time of a similar passage in his Pastoral Symphony – to emerge tellingly. Vaughan Williams writes some powerfully dramatic climaxes which Davis for once allowed to expand – which to my mind gave them greater impact dynamically and emotionally. Again, it was the hushed passages – more important solo duties for the principal viola – that impress, but Davis chose to return to his forthright style and the rhapsodic fantasy implicit in the use of the street-seller’s music was underplayed.
The third movement Scherzo is the part of the work that underwent most revision. Here it was a model of neat and polished playing and impressive as such but the kaleidoscopic mercurial quality of the movement was diminished. The cockney dance and street organ effects were superbly evoked and yet again, with the power of the full orchestra unleashed the movement built to an excitingly impressive climax. Davis played the final movement attacca although it is not marked in the score at such. It works rather well this way although it gave a member of the audience in my row a bit of a jolt out of her scherzo-nocturne induced slumbers.
Davis hit an ideal trenchant resolute tempo for the march which represents the finale proper. Again the orchestra drew on a huge dynamic range. What an exciting sound a large symphony orchestra at full cry makes! Aside from the closing pages which return us to the Thames at night this is the least overtly programmatic movement in the work and as such the one that responded best to Davis’ direct/symphonic approach. Again he proved himself masterly at building the big climaxes, this one topping all those that had gone before crowned with a mighty crash on the tam-tam. There is a sense of despair in this movement that Davis mined to great effect; even the closing “Thames” epilogue replete with the Westminster chimes seemed strangely – rightly – bleak. Vaughan Williams linked this passage to a quote from H.G Wells’ Tono-Bungay; “the river passes…London passes, England passes..”. In the novel this relates literally to someone watching from a ship as it sails away, here the ‘passing’ had a wider and more poignant resonance; the passing of an age. One last Job-like benediction from a solo violin and the work died away to deathly silence. Davis held the audience’s applause for some considerable time but when it came it was warm and appreciative… and Davis beamed at all and sundry all over again. What a delight to see a musician of Davis’ stature and experience so palpably engaged in what he does.
Sadly, Anvil audiences will not hear another note of British music by any composer for the next sixteen concerts. Next Season’s programme includes not one single work however brief and indeed the concerts given are only conducted by British conductors in two instances. This concert was an excellent example – if any were needed – that British music remains as powerful and communicative as that of any country.