Splendid Mix of the Familiar, the Less Familiar and the Rarely Heard.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Rawsthorne, Elgar, Vaughan Williams: James Ehnes (violin), BBC Philharmonic/Sir Andrew Davis, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 23.5.2014 (MC)

James Ehnes

Rawsthorne: Overture ‘Street Corner’
Elgar: Violin Concerto
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 9


Programmes of English music in English concert halls are a lot rarer than one might imagine. So when one comes along it’s always worth taking advantage of it especially with a programme as attractive as this and when Sir Andrew Davis a renowned champion of English music is holding the baton. This was a near ideal programme of English music – a splendid mix of the familiar, the less familiar and the rarely heard.

It was good to hear a work from Alan Rawsthorne locally born in Haslingden, a town just out outside Manchester, and getting the concert off to a rousing start was his Concert Overture ‘Street Corner’. I can confidently assert the score was being heard by the vast majority of the audience for the first time. Composed in 1944 during wartime the composer explained ‘Street Corner’ evoked “Saturday night at the crossroads of a busy industrial town” and there was certainly a Lowryesque colouring to this often brassy music. Leaving a rather upbeat impression this bold and rather brash work fizzed along and at around six minutes never outstayed its welcome.

Next on the programme was the Elgar Violin Concerto. With such a stunningly effective score I remain puzzled why the two finest women violinists of their generation Anne-Sophie Mutter and Viktoria Mullova don’t play it. I have even asked them about it in interviews. On today’s concert stage there is no soloist who plays the Elgar concerto as well as Nikolaj Znaider and I fondly recall his stunning playing of the score at the Bridgwater in 2010 with the Hallé under the baton of Sir Mark Elder.Tonight’s soloist in the Elgar was Canadian violinist James Ehnes, a frequent visitor to the Bridgewater. Often when listening to Ehnes I can be left wanting additional passion from his interpretations. That was not the case tonight in the Elgar, as everything seemed ideally produced with Ehnes’s splendid virtuosity combining with a judicious amount of romantic expression. With the passages of rapt and lyrical beauty in the Andante Ehnes’s playing of tender passion and assured control drew in the listener to captivating effect. Throughout Sir Andrew insisted on orchestral playing a touch weightier than I expected and there were two or three untidy moments, but nothing too drastic to break the spell. Audience demands for an encore resulted in Ehnes’s playing the Andante from J.S. Bach’s second violin sonata.

Originally inspired by Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Vaughan Williams’s ninth and final symphony was premiered in his eighty-sixth year. Over the years I haven’t seen the ninth symphony on too many concert programmes so it was good to have the opportunity of hearing such an underrated work. Although a product of the composer’s autumn years, there is nothing sentimental or mournful in the writing. I find this a bold, forceful often dark score with an innate sense of struggle and a degree of anger approaching that of the sixth symphony. Especially gripping was the playing of the opening movement Moderato maestoso that evoked for me a ship carefully navigating its course through heavy early morning fog. Capturing the woodwind and brass so vividly throughout Davis ensured there was plenty of weight in the stirring climaxes. I was rather surprised by some uncharacteristically rough edges to the playing that made me wonder about the amount of rehearsal the orchestra had with the conductor. Nevertheless, after a performance as compelling as this from the BBC Philharmonic the score’s neglect is inexplicable.

Michael Cookson


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