Lightness and Optimism in Carroll’s Playing of Elgar Cello Concerto

20/10/2015

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Swansea Festival 2015 – Wagner, Elgar, Beethoven: Thomas Carroll (cello), Dresden Philharmonic /  Michael Sanderling (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 17.10.2015. (NR)

Wagner: Overture, Die Meistersinger

Elgar: Cello Concerto

Beethoven: Symphony no. 3, ‘Eroica’

The Swansea Festival closed with the Dresden Philharmonic, under the impressive Michael Sanderling, playing a popular but nonetheless demanding programme: mainstream German repertoire from which the audience expected – and received – performances direct from the blood, as it were, and conversely Elgar, whose music is increasingly frequently played by Continental orchestras and invested as a result with interesting questions about its ‘Englishness’.

In the Meistersinger overture the double basses were particularly strong, and it was intriguing to see the re-arrangement of forces for Beethoven in the second half, with the basses placed on the conductor’s extreme left, the cellos in the middle, in front of the woodwinds, and the second violins where the cellos and basses would normally be. I wasn’t quite sure how this affected the sound in the Eroica, but the weight, tightness and precision were never in doubt. Everything in this extraordinary work seemed fresh: I found myself wondering how its first audiences would have reacted to music of a kind they would never previously have experienced, from the repeated-note motifs used so variously, through the frighteningly abrupt rhythmic plunges in the scherzo, to the way the apparently broken fragments at the opening of the finale miraculously glue themselves together. We’re still just catching up with it, really. A bit too quickly after the close of this the orchestra played the last section of the William Tell overture as an encore – brilliantly done, but I could have done without it, with the last chords of the Eroica still somewhere in my head.

At the concert’s centre was local returnee Thomas Carroll’s rendition of Elgar’s Cello Concerto – perceptive, beautiful, and subtly accompanied. In the famous slow movement he discovered a lightness, even a kind of optimism that more lugubrious performances gloss over – and as a result the reprise-effects in the finale had more grandeur and pathos than one sometimes finds. It was good to hear the work shorn of that English autumn effect, if I could put it like that, that can often be rather routinely washed on to the music – I wonder if an orchestra of this calibre could ever be enticed to play Moeran, or Bax, or Finzi?

Neil Reeve

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