Student and Professional Players Combine in an Impressive and Moving Elgar Performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar: Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra with members of Welsh National Opera Orchestra/George Jackson (conductor). Great Hall, Blackheath Halls, London, 6.5.2016. (MB)

Elgar, Symphony no.1 in A-flat major, op.55

Members of the WNO Orchestra have been joining young players at the Royal Welsh College of Drama, Birmingham Conservatoire, and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, for ‘side-by-side’ mentoring, rehearsals, and performances. In a welcome note to the programme, Trinity Laban’s Head of Orchestral Studies explained: ‘Not only then, are the students encouraged and trained to play to the highest professional level, but they also experience the focus and discipline required to prepare a performance in limited rehearsal time – again a crucial discipline for the aspiring professional orchestral musician.’ The results, under Trinity Laban’s Sir Charles Mackerras Fellow in Conducting, George Jackson, were impressive indeed. Impressive and moving.

The excellent Blackheath acoustic helped to bring out both the warmth and immediacy in the orchestral playing. If the lamps were going out all over Europe at the opening of the first movement, there was strength too. The transition to the second group and the character of its material were smoothly, dramatically handled. Disintegrative tendencies – particularly in the brass earlier on, but later also in some beautifully dissolving string lines – were present but not exaggerated. Jackson imparted a strong sense of line throughout; there was no doubt that he knew where the music was heading, nor of his ability to communicate that to his players and to the audience. The timpanist’s underpinning of the dramatic trajectory often proved especially telling.

The scherzo was just as alert dramatically – drama, an idea to which I kept returning – as it was rhythmically. (There is no real distinction, of course.) Darkness was of a kind familiar from Elgar’s own no-nonsense approach to the score. The trio, tonally distant, sounded outwardly different, at least to begin with, but underlying unease remained, indeed mounted. The slow movement was in that respect not dissimilar, albeit with the ordering, as it were, reversed. There was a songful quality to this Adagio: certainly not on the slow side, but nor was it ever harried. Occasional passages of thinner string sound were to be heard, but such a cavil – almost my only one – should not be taken too seriously, for there were many more passages of noble passion.

The Lento opening to the finale was unmistakeable in its sense of darkness, even malevolence, such as at least to match what had gone before. ‘What had gone before’ was of course to be heard in thematic reminiscence, arguably more than mere ‘reminiscence’. Elgar’s practice here inevitably brought to mind some of his greatest symphonic predecessors, not least Beethoven in the Ninth Symphony, albeit with the crucial caveat of there being no vocal entry, with all that that entails (or does not). There is much more to the movement than that, of course, but there was a heavy load to be borne. Elgar offers no fixed boundary here between past and present; nor did the performance, whose flexibility, even protean quality, greatly enhanced its capacity to move. The final peroration, if one can call it that, was as equivocal as many of its Mahlerian counterparts.

Mark Berry


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