United Kingdom Elgar, Wagner: Natalie Clein (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 4.4.2014 (PCG)
Elgar – Symphony No 1
Wagner – Rienzi: Overture
It was the recording by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli that first caused me to fall in love with Elgar’s First Symphony. The orchestra in the 1960s was at the peak of its form, and Barbirolli brought out the full range of passion not only in the noble opening ‘motto’ theme but also in the remarkable passage in the finale when Elgar transforms a brisk military march into a long-breathed cantilena that bids fair to out-Nimrod Nimrod in the emotional stakes.
One also had another reason to anticipate this concert with eagerness: the conducting of Edward Gardner, whose performance of sections of Elgar’s Apostles in a BBC documentary a couple of years ago alerted one to the presence of an Elgarian interpreter of the first rank who was not unwilling to investigate the composer’s lesser-known scores. Under the circumstances one might have wished that we could have had an all-Elgar programme (I would love to hear Gardner perform the incidental music and funeral march from Grania and Diarmid, where most modern interpreters seem to be to be too brisk with the glorious music and only Sir Charles Groves on a very old EMI recording seems to have got the speed just right). But instead we opened with a Wagnerian warhorse, where Gardner was able to show his operatic credentials in a work he is unlikely ever to have the opportunity to conduct in the theatre. In the event he gave us a brisk performance – very fast indeed at the end, not to the advantage of the orchestral articulation – which brought out the parallels to Weber in this early score.
Natalie Clein has of course made something of a speciality of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, a work which helped to launch her career when she played it in the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year a decade or so since. She clearly loves the piece, but there is such a thing as killing a performance with over-kindness and this danger was not altogether avoided here. Clein’s reading had a sense of self-communion which failed to come across with the full-blooded romantic ardour that one might expect, except at the climax of the first movement. Even the finale tended to run out of steam, with the faster episodes almost sounding like interruptions to the course of the work rather than their culmination.
After the interval however Gardner gave us an excoriating account of the Elgar First Symphony delivered at a blistering speed that recalled the composer’s own recording of the work. His reading of the second subject in the first movement recapitulation was intense indeed, but at times the brass tended to dominate the textures overmuch with a sense almost of brutality. This may have been the result of the placement of the orchestra, crammed onto the stage with very little room and the percussion set off to one side; and it seemed that the strings had also been reduced in number, which did not help to achieve an ideal balance. However the violins were split stereophonically across the stage, which paid real dividends in the answering passages in the scherzo, delivered at a spanking pace. Sometimes the linked slow movement which follows can sound too conscientiously like a slowed-down version of the scherzo material (which of course it is), but Gardner skilfully avoided this pitfall and brought plenty of passion to the music. Unfortunately this was not sufficient to silence an unusually bronchitic audience, even in the heartbreaking delivery of the final bars.
The coughers were further wrong-footed by Gardner’s immediate launch of the finale immediately following on from the lunga pause Elgar marked at the end of the slow movement. This is not asked for by the composer, but it works very well and Gardner made a neat point in the initial statement of the martial march theme as part of a ‘bridge’ into the main material. After that, despite continuing problems of over-prominent brass in places, the performance was everything that one could wish for; and yes, Gardner did achieve all the sense of ecstasy that is required in the slow cantilena section before the thrilling return of the opening motto theme.
Paul Corfield Godfrey