United Kingdom Elgar, Rachmaninov, Vaughan Williams: Alexei Volodi (piano); Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton (conductor). The Lighthouse, Poole, 21.1.2015 (IL)
Elgar: Cockaigne Overture
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 2 – A London Symphony
Andrew Litton is a popular and admired figure at the Lighthouse Concert Hall. He was Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra from 1988 to 1994. His return to the Poole podium is always welcomed with enthusiasm.
In this instance, he conducted an intriguing concert with two portraits of London by two leading British composers, both written in the early years of the 20th century – Elgar’s Cockaigne (1900-01) and Vaughan Williams’s ‘London’ Symphony (1911-13) – written in the sunset years of an old broader, ‘kindlier’ era that would be swept away with the advent of the Great War. I remember Barbirolli (a Londoner and proud of it) conducting these two works with humour and passion, finesse and great sensitivity to their special atmosphere and I treasure his magnificent 1967 touchstone recording of the Symphony. I have to say that in comparison, Lytton’s readings, good as they were, generally, lacked that special sensitivity. It was as though he was in Dallas rather than London.
Too often the brass section tended to overwhelm producing an unwelcome sense of brashness. An example: near the beginning of the exquisite portrait of a foggy Bloomsbury second movement of the Symphony, there is a passage with quietly tremolando strings and a gentle horn figure above it. This was too forward, too firmly stated, spoiling the atmosphere of those quiet shrouded streets. Again, in the first movement, the magic of the music evoking the calmer beauty of out-of-the-way places and hidden squares was eluded. Elgar wrote of Edwardian London, with great affection calling it cheerful and “stout and steaky” Litton captured the Cockney cheer and the bustle well but he did not let go enough to capture the romance and the essential spirit of great warmth and pride in London.
Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto, written when the composer was only seventeen, but revised in 1917 has, it seems, always remained within the shadow of the popular Second Piano Concerto (shades of Brief Encounter) and the monumental and technically demanding Third Piano Concerto. This is a great pity for the First Concerto has much to recommend it: It has immediate appeal, it is passionate and exciting and it brims with wonderful, heartfelt melodies. Andrew Littion has great affinity with the Rachmaninov concertos. He conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in accompanying Stephen Hough in the much admired 2004 Hyperion recording of all four concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody. Litton again serves a finely nuanced and heartfelt accompaniment with finely judged rubato and an allowance for subtle emotional slurs in the strings. Sadly, Alexei Volodin did not deliver a fully convincing solo. There was a certain detachment. The two extensive cadenzas in the opening two movements were revealing. In the second movement’s cadenza all was well and convincing, the atmosphere of romantic dreaming entranced – that is, until it abruptly vanished.
An engaging concert but one where the music needed more heart.