Time Stands Still in Philharmonia’s Evocation of Past Wars

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Elgar, Vaughan Williams: Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra, Nicholas Collon (conductor), Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, 11.10.2014

Britten: ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes
Elgar: Cello Concerto
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.3, ‘Pastoral’

2014, during which we have so often been inspired, touched and consoled by musical commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1914, has offered many programmes compiled to lead us to remember and celebrate the spirit (perhaps a somewhat tenuous concept in the modern era) of ‘Englishness’.  At the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, opening their 2014-15 season, the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Nicholas Collon made a thoughtful and telling contribution to the year’s acknowledgements and remembrances.  And, although not all of the works directly link to the events of 1914-18, there were still powerful shared sentiments which united the three 20thcentury English masterpieces performed.

Britten’s opera Peter Grimes is perhaps more closely associated with the Second World War than the First, being sketched by Britten upon the Swedish cargo ship Axel Johnson as he crossed the Atlantic in 1942, returning from brief self-imposed exile in the US.  The four ‘Sea Interludes’ have found as much success and admiration in the concert hall as the opera itself has in the theatre, and Collon and the Philharmonia gave a discerning account, the technical prowess of the players doing much to build powerfully convincing impressions of the Suffolk locale and inclement coastal environment, and to move us to emotional reflection.

That said, I did not feel that Collon always judged the tempi effectively.  Both ‘Dawn’ and ‘Sunday Morning’ felt a little rushed. In the former, the clarinets’ rippling wash which punctuates the strings’ crystalline, stratospheric etchings did not have sufficient room to breathe and expand, and the horn chords similarly lacked a fully ominous resonance.  But there was much fine instrumental playing; the ‘bite’ of the trumpet, flute and strings in ‘Sunday Morning’ was a powerful embodiment of a crisp sea-borne breeze and community industriousness; and, the rather dry acoustic of the Marlowe Theatre – more generally a hindrance than an aid to orchestral projection – gave extra precision to the combination of scotch-snap incisiveness from the first violins and stabbing pizzicato from the second violins.  A little more space would, however, have allowed the overlapping horn chords to ring with more bell-like reverberation, though the percussion section did provided an exciting, graphic soundscape.  ‘Moonlight’ had some exquisite moments,  especially the build-up by divided violas and celli leading to a full orchestral statement of the restless surging motif;. However, for the latter to make its full impact, more time was needed for the dynamic rises and falls to speak and register.  The ‘Storm’ was appropriately fiery and disruptive, and highlighted the orchestra’s virtuosity and superb ensemble.

In an intimate, though not unduly introspective, reading of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, American soloist Alisa Weilerstein played with unfailingly beautiful tone; but she employed a sometimes inappropriately wide vibrato and there was a general lack of colouristic variation, which limited her expressive range.  Wielerstein was flexible, and sometimes wayward, in her approach to phrasing and structure, causing Collon some difficulties in anticipating Wielerstein’s expressive caprices.  It is credit to the fine leadership of Duncan Riddell that the Philharmonia were able to accompany with such sureness and accuracy.  The third movement, Adagio, was most affecting, Weilerstein’s eloquent, soulful phrasing evoking a poignant sense of regret, and the strings of the Philharmonia providing wonderfully supportive and warm accompanying timbres.  Overall, there was certainly no doubting Weilerstein’s commitment or willingness to take risks; her cello is clearly an extension of her heart, and she balanced sensitive communication with whimsical reflection.

It was after the interval that the Philharmonia really rose to expressive heights, in a wonderfully communicative performance of Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphony, the ‘Pastoral’.  It is a work which has gained the reputation of being an elegy for the dead of WWI, inspired as it was by the composer’s personal experience of hearing a bugler practising the last post and accidentally playing an interval of a seventh instead of an octave – an event which informed the trumpet cadenza in the second movement.  Here, the first movement possessed a spiritual solemnity, initiated by the haunting statements by the horns; ‘pastoral’ is a misleading epithet – Collon showed, through his control of the shifting harmonic centres, that in this work there is none of the glibness of works such as The Lark Ascending, rather the bleakness of French and Flemish devastated landscapes.  The chords slipped and slid like the mud of war-torn fields.  As we proceeded, heartfelt and communicative string solos lifted the emotional thermometer still higher; in particular, ravishing playing from Yukiko Ogura inspiring wonderfully rich imitation from her full viola section, and justly earned her the admiration of her fellow orchestral players at the close.  The solo interjections of cellist Timothy Walden were similarly stirring.  Jason Evans’ touching off-stage trumpet solo in the second movement was still ringing in our ears as he returned to his seat for the sprightly brass interjections of the third movement Scherzo.  Here, Collon shaped the lopsided dance rhythms well and conjured a whispering pianissimo in the breathless coda.  In the final movement, Lento, Collon established an assurance and composure, following the preceding greyness and uncertainty. There was some wonderful horn playing by Nigel Black, before Elizabeth Watts’ serene soprano floated over us from the uppermost balcony. It was as if time had stopped, and peace seemed possible.

Claire Seymour


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