United Kingdom Walton, Elgar, Delius: Tasmin Little (violin), Paul Watkins (cello), Neal Davies (bass), BBC National Chorus of Wales, members of Bristol Choral Society, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 1.12.2016. (PCG)
Elgar – In the South (Alassio) Op.50
Delius – Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra
Walton – Belshazzar’s Feast
Those listeners who listened to the live relay of this concert on Radio 3 will hardly need me to report on an experience of quite exceptional quality. Martyn Brabbins’s recent recordings of the Elgar and Delius works in this programme (the concerto with the same two soloists) have already received glowing reviews from other critics, and as always this orchestra yields to none in its combination of warmth, emotion, and precision. Indeed, in the first half of the concert we heard two performances which did much to restore the reputations of pieces which have been, perhaps, unjustly slighted in the past.
Elgar’s In the South (Alassio) resulted from a visit to Italy made by the composer and his wife in 1904 which was intended to furnish inspiration for a symphony. The results were not generally a success, with the weather uninspiring and the symphony deferred for a couple of years. Instead, Elgar wrote this overture which John Pickard’s programme note likened to “a one-movement symphony”. Now I would hesitate to cross swords with a composer like Pickard, whose symphonies I have so much admired, but the symphonic form seems to me to be incidental at best in the music itself. What we do have is a series of photograph-like episodes, one of which Elgar himself extracted to form the salon piece Canto Popolare. Impressive themes arise, which never recur, and the development of the opening material at the end is the only real hint of classical form. Elgar’s symphony, when it eventually would arrive, was a work of immeasurably greater assurance. Nonetheless, Brabbins and the orchestra succeeded in convincing me that In the South is more than simply an attempt to retrieve something from a disappointing holiday experience. The playing of the strings was excoriatingly clean and crisp, and although the textures might have been even clearer if the violins had been split left and right across the stage (the score manifestly expects this in places), the results were exciting in the extreme. Rebecca Jones’s viola solo in the Canto Popolare was nicely integrated into the whole without drawing undue attention to itself.
The programme note for the Delius’s Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra was provided by Tasmin Little herself, and she made a strong argument for the merits of a work over which, as she observed, “critical opinion has been varied”. Delius’s champion Sir Thomas Beecham abandoned the first performance to the baton of Sir Henry Wood, commenting tartly that the concerto “might be saved from oblivion on the condition that two gifted soloists took it in hand and subjected it to fairly ruthless revision.” (One wonders why Beecham did not undertake such revision himself, since Delius was always pleased with the results of his editorial ministrations elsewhere.) My early encounters with the work on LP were not encouraging either. The music is not overly virtuosic in style, but it remains extremely difficult. Many passages feature the two soloists in octaves where the slightest differences in intonation are mercilessly exposed, and early recordings did indeed tend to expose them. But there were no such problems here, Little and her partner Paul Watkins always precisely in tune with each other and blending into a seamless unit without finding any need whatsoever to revise Delius’s original score. They also blended perfectly into the orchestra, not spot-lit but forming a rapturous blend with the woodwind and reaching sublime heights of ecstasy during the slow central section. Here the music transcends any considerations of display or concerto form to produce an atmosphere that parallels nature poems such as In a Summer Garden or even the earlier Florida Suite. This performance was quite a revelation, for which I am exceeding grateful.
After the interval, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast was perhaps more predictably successful. But this too is a work that presents the performers with incredibly difficult problems, and although we have become accustomed over the years to these being triumphantly overcome, it is never safe to assume that this will invariably be the case. Early recordings of the oratorio show how easily things can go badly wrong, not only in the excruciatingly difficult matter of pitching the vocal lines but also in the internal balance of the choirs (often in stereophonically contrasted sections) and the matter of sheer momentum through the often tricky syncopations. The choir surmounted the rhythmic problems with apparent ease, and their pitching of the discordant harmonies were also spot on. Brabbins gave us a stupendously exciting performance, with speeds that plunged recklessly ahead in a manner that at times left me open-mouthed. He was aided and abetted by an orchestra expanded to 106 players, with Walton’s stipulated two “brass bands” separately placed to the left and right of the chorus (as requested by the composer but not always to be taken for granted). One might have welcomed, however, a more substantial anvil in the “god of iron” section; clinking two metal bars together might be more precise, but doesn’t really seem to supply the ferocity that the music demands. It seemed odd to cast Neal Davies, a bass, in a role that Walton specifies for a baritone; but the part does not rise to any extreme heights and Davies gave a properly dramatic performance despite some drifting from Walton’s notated pitches in his “shopping list” of Babylonian trading produce (a failing that afflicts many soloists, including some who have recorded the work). The shout of the chorus on the word “Slain!” too seemed slightly embarrassed and under-powered; or maybe we have just become blasé about an effect that once seemed shocking, but to which we have become accustomed in many later and more avant-garde works. But these were really very minor quibbles in the context of a performance which rightly brought the audience cheering to their feet. The sterling work of both the choirs and orchestra deserve the highest of praise; anyone who missed the live broadcast is urged to listen to the relay during the next month while it remains available on the BBC iPlayer. And I must not forget to congratulate the BBC on providing an excellent programme with extensive essays from distinguished contributors, as well as the complete text of the Walton oratorio.
Paul Corfield Godfrey