United Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Ireland and Elgar: Mark Bebbington (piano), Duncan Riddell (violin), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Barry Wordsworth (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 1.11.2017. (AS)
Vaughan Williams – The Wasps – Overture; The Lark Ascending
Ireland – Piano Concerto in E flat
Elgar – Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36, Enigma
Here was a programme of the most popular English classics, with the exception of the Ireland concerto, which however seems to be coming back into favour a little more after a period of some neglect. It is a work that needs a good deal of sensitivity and insight on the part of the soloist, for it doesn’t reveal its secrets easily. Mark Bebbington has done much good work on Ireland’s behalf, both in the recording studio and in live performance, and he has a sure grasp of the composer’s style. As the possessor of a fine technique, he is also more than equal to the specific pianistic challenges that the concerto poses. Yet the work also has a certain characteristic wistfulness, an air of gentle melancholy and a special kind of fragile beauty that some artists have been able to find underneath the notes themselves. These qualities were only partly realised by Bebbington. His was quite a direct approach, and there was much to admire in his playing, but we didn’t quite get the whole story. Everything was well judged from a basic interpretative viewpoint, except perhaps for the opening tempo of the finale. This was of course initially set by Barry Wordsworth, but must have been decided upon by soloist and conductor together in rehearsal. Ireland was very particular about this tempo, and made it clear to the first performers of the piece that it should not be too fast. On this occasion it was a little quicker than the jog-trot pace that suits the nature of the music best. As an encore Bebbington played Ireland’s solo piece, ‘The Island Spell’, the first of his three Decorations.
The concert had begun with an exhilarating account of the Overture from Vaughan Williams’s ‘Aristophanic Suite’, The Wasps. Under Wordsworth’s encouraging, clear-cut beat the RPO played with great spirit and character. Less successful was Duncan Riddell’s account of the same composer’s The Lark Ascending after the interval. Here the solo playing was accurate and workmanlike, but only that, and devoid of any real spirituality or beauty of phrase.
Fortunately, Wordsworth then restored the music-making to a high level with a warmhearted, beautifully shaped and balanced account of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Despite it being a very conventional performance in which the presentation of all the variations conformed to a traditional norm, it still possessed great vitality and freshness, and there was some splendidly expressive playing from the RPO. Barry Wordsworth was by some distance the hero of the evening.
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