Osmo Vänskä’s Original and Rewarding Approach to Elgar

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Nikolai, Korngold and Elgar: Hyeyoon Park (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Osmo Vänskä (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 12.2.2016. (AS)

Nicolai: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor – Overture

Korngold: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35

Elgar: Symphony No. 1 in A flat, Op. 55

In its programme note for this concert the LPO listed four recommended recordings of Elgar’s First Symphony – all of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It is known that in preparation for his LPO version Sir Georg Solti studied Elgar’s own recording of the symphony before committing his performance to record. Thus a tradition that had been evolving under British conductors was broken – one that had rather strayed from Elgar’s own conception of his music, particularly in regard to tempi, which had often become broader, with long-arched phrases, and without Elgar’s own rather nervous pulse changes. Nowadays Elgar’s music has become the province of conductors from all over the world, and long may this continue, for there is of course no key to absolute rightness in its performance.

I don’t know whether Osmo Vänskä knows Elgar’s recording, but in any event there were many unusual and effective details in his reading of the First Symphony. Most importantly, he kept the music moving forward, as did Elgar: there were no sentimental or pompous lingerings of the kind that can make the composer seem like the stuffy Edwardian personality that in fact he was not. Instead we heard numerous mercurial little pointings of phrase that in no way interfered with the main arguments of the first movement, in particular, and Vänskä persuaded playing of great energy from the orchestra throughout the work. The second, scherzo-like movement was delivered in a very taut, urgent fashion, but there was a surprise in the transition to the third movement: here the fast pace slowed down even more than usual to provide a particularly striking contrast with what had gone before: this formed an effective prelude to an Adagio that again was kept on the move, very expressively so, with a slight – again unusual – lilt in the rhythm.

The finale can sound pedantic in the wrong hands, but not here. The slow introduction was carefully paced, looking forward to a most expressive, very emotional account of the movement as a whole, which was both moving and exciting in turn. And the way Vänskä managed the return of the work’s opening big tune at its end was masterly, since he integrated it in the musical argument without allowing it to dominate.

Once upon a time Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor used to form part of LP collections bearing such titles as ‘Popular Overtures’, but alas, this delightful piece has fallen into neglect, in common with many other once-familiar concert openers. In fact it felt quite nostalgic to have a concert that comprised the old formula of overture, concerto and symphony. So why did the Merry Wives make a rare appearance? Because it was a nod to a concert series that is entitled ‘Shakespeare 400”. The Shakespeare connection could have been made less tenuous with the inclusion of Elgar’s Falstaff, instead of the First Symphony, but maybe that would have been too much of a box office risk. Anyway, it was good to hear Nicolai’s overture, especially in such a sprightly, affectionate performance.

In the Korngold concerto the young Korean violinist Hyeyoon Park was making her London concerto debut. This work seems to be becoming more popular, and before this concert I wondered why, since previous hearings have not suggested that it has much substance. But Park and Vänskä contrived to make much more of the piece than usual, even if they could not quite banish its show-biz, film music origins. Park has a well-rounded tone quality that projects strongly, and she has a fluent technique, though this was stretched a little in the cruelly difficult-sounding beginning of the last movement, taken at quite a fast tempo. She found more nobility and stronger personality in the solo part than one has heard before, and it would be good to hear her in one of the mainstream concertos.

Alan Sanders

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