Probing Finzi and Biting Shostakovich from Watkins and Davis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Finzi, Shostakovich: Paul Watkins (cello), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 2.2.2018. (CS)

Paul Watkins (c) Nina Large
Paul Watkins (c) Nina Large

Finzi – Cello Concerto in A minor Op.40
Shostakovich – Symphony No.10 in E minor Op.93

When Gerald Finzi’s Cello Concerto was premiered, at the tenth Cheltenham Festival on 19th July 1955, the Daily Telegraph lamented that its ‘harmonic language and thematic character give no hint of what has been happening in music during the last 40 years’ while the New Statesman complained that ‘conceived and executed so much under the shadow of Elgar [that] only by courtesy can it be called a new work at all’.

Finzi’s elegiac lyricism was evidently decidedly passé in the mid-1950s.  But, since then, the sensitivity of the composer’s settings of English poetry, the lyricism of the Clarinet Concerto, the emotional intensity of Intimations of Immortality and other works have come to be more widely and deeply enjoyed and appreciated.  To declare my own hand at the start of this review, I’m firmly in the ‘anything by Finzi is worth playing/hearing’ camp.  Fortunately, others shared and share my opinion, and if the advocacy of Raphael Wallfisch brought the Cello Concerto into the public eye, then one hopes that Paul Watkins’ committed belief in the work – the solo part of which he flourished, allowing the music itself to take the applause at the close of this performance at the Barbican Hall – will keep it there.

The Cello Concerto was written at a time when Finzi was seriously ill with the Hodgkin’s Disease that was to prove fatal.  No manuscript is extant and Jeremy Dale Roberts – who has produced an edited score based on the original copyist’s full score (with annotations by Finzi) and orchestra parts, and the original printed solo part and piano reduction – notes that Finzi was making changes up to the very last minute.  The score was delivered to the Cheltenham Festival only three weeks before its premiere, by Christopher Bunting and the Hallé under Sir John Barbirolli, and there are signs, Dale Roberts explains, of ‘hastiness’, and numerous omissions and ambiguities with regard to articulation, tempo and dynamics which might make us feel ‘more entitled to regard the texts [Finzi] left us as provisional’.

Provisional or otherwise, such lack of specificity might allow interpretative freedom, enabling performers to ‘make the work their own’.  Certainly, Paul Watkins did not wallow in the concerto’s undoubtedly Elgarian nostalgia and quasi-heroic pathos, though neither did he and conductor Andrew Davis place undue emphasis on the ‘turbulence’ that some have professed to find in the work.  Instead, this was a performance of gravity and poise: the first movement Allegro moderato serious and penetrating, the Andante quieto sublimely songful, and the final Rondo surprisingly ebullient – as if the sunny cheerfulness of the Clarinet Concerto had pushed aside the shadows of sadness.

This was in fact quite a robust performance; as Watkins prepared for the virtuosic and intense challenges, one could sense him metaphorically rolling up his sleeves.  And, while Watkins’ tone was beautifully clear and clean when he shaped the melody in the middle and upper registers, he introduced an occasional gruffness at the bottom, as when the cello’s first entry plummeted low.  The cadenza of the first movement is challenging, and Watkins’ intonation was impressive; there was, in a positive way, a real sense of ‘effort’ – and it is tempting to think that this might be reflective of the composer’s own struggle to complete this final work.  Certainly, the orchestral comment which follows the cadenza is brief, as if the soloist has said all that needs to be said at that point, and after the cello’s final ‘angry’ roar, the strings faded slowly into a charged silence.

Watkins controlled the melancholy intensity of the Andante quieto superbly, the long lines unfolding effortlessly as if sung in one breath, the lyricism unbroken by the occasional wide melodic leaps.  Alongside the poignancy there was also stature, which helped to give form to what is really too long a movement (Howard Ferguson wrote to Finzi that it was ‘heart-breakingly beautiful’ but ‘formally and emotionally it overbalances the rest of the work’).  The soloist’s pizzicato octaves at the start of the Adagio leading to the final Allegro giocoso were unexpectedly forthright, hardly the ‘tentative’ opening that the programme note led one to expect; they were answered quietly but sharply by the side-drum’s rat-a-tat, and a tense proposition from the horn, but blossomed into a carefree, fluent dance, conveying expressive freedom.

Many consider Finzi to be a master miniaturist but less competent when handling larger forms and forces.  The Cello Concerto employs double woodwind and full brass, including tuba, and timpani and percussion (side drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam tam, triangle), and Davis sought as much variety of colour as possible.  From the first, the conductor (celebrating his 74th birthday) had a real spring in his step, and his gestures – he eschewed a baton – were energising, even flamboyant.

I was particularly impressed by the clarinet playing of Richard Hosford, whose solos in both first and last movements sailed with lovely clarity and warmth.  The horns and solo oboe and bassoon established a tender pastoralism at the start of the Andante quieto and in this movement the more flowing woodwind passages supplied relaxed warmth to complement the cello’s poignant elegy, introducing a momentum which prevented the music becoming ‘lost’ in rapture.  The BBCSO strings were occasionally a little untidy, but sensitive to Finzi’s idiom.

Finzi uses his brass section quite stridently at times, and in the finale Davis let the trombones off the leash in their rhythmic tattoo and blazing C major apotheosis, but elsewhere balanced the full orchestral and soloist effectively.  He largely maintained a sense of direction, and the concluding accelerando was infectious, though even Davis and Watkins could not prevent the development section of the first movement from feeling rather meandering.

Overall, Watkins convincingly communicated the way that Finzi both plunges his soloist into profound introspection and also generates fertile conversations between soloist and orchestra.  In fact, the performance reunited Watkins with the orchestra of which he was Principal Cellist from 1990-97, during which time Davis was himself the BBCSO’s Chief Conductor (he is now Conductor Laureate of the orchestra), and there was a strong sense of warm companionship both during the performance and afterwards, as the members of the BBCSO enthusiastically showed their appreciation for their returning soloist.

The first broadcast of the Cello Concerto, in 1956, conducted by Barbirolli who had commissioned the work, was relayed on the night before Finzi died, in an Oxford hospital.  One likes to imagine the composer listening to the radio broadcast of his own deeply expressive swansong and finding peace.

There is little ‘peace’, however, in Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, which was composed in 1953 following years during which the Stalinist regime had inflicted tragedy and terror on the Russian people, and Shostakovich himself, declared a ‘non-person’, had endured repeated condemnation of his work.  But, despite the obvious differences between the musical language of the symphony which followed the interval and the concerto that we had earlier enjoyed, the works do share a similar ‘searching’ quality and moments of both angry despair and profound contemplativeness.  Davis expertly communicated this sense of ‘quest’ as well as capturing all the rich variety of Shostakovich’s score, assimilating contrasting material and sonorities within the broad architectural form.

At the start of the Moderato it was as if vast worlds were opening up before us, or inexorable geological forces rumbling, the darkness of the bassoon and low cellos and basses lending a brooding air.  Once again Hosford’s clarinet shone beautifully, so much so that the dread-laden first orchestral climax almost took me unawares.  As the movement progressed, Davis communicated the music’s unwavering insistence, and persistence.  The BBCSO strings were much more disciplined than in the Finzi, finding diverse timbres – lyrical warmth, pizzicato dryness, and a strange blend of glassiness and weight which was ominous.  The woodwind excelled in the biting second movement Allegro – said, by the composer in Testimony, to be a portrait of Stalin – as Davis propelled the moto perpetuo and manipulated the rhythmic arguments skilfully, relishing the displaced accents of the military drum’s sinister retort.  He built the movement to what I can only describe, paradoxically, as controlled fury – stirringly embodied by the final temporal and dynamic surge of ferocity.

The Allegretto seemed almost a ‘trio’ to this sarcastic scherzo, snatches of rhythm and melody in the woodwind conjuring a dance-like air while the strings, presenting Shostakovich’s trademark D-S-C-H motif, conversed with the solo horn’s statement – confidently and glowingly played by Martin Owen – which Shostakovich scholar Nelly Kravetz has identified as a musical representation of one of the composer’s pupils, Elmira Nazirova (E-A-E-D-A or, incorporating solfège, E-La-Mi-Re-A).  Davis almost overwhelmed us with the massiveness of the scale of the finale, but never neglected the finer details, allowing us once again to relish the woodwind solos in the prefatory Andante, the clarinet’s invitation to madness at the start of the rampaging Allegro and the bassoon’s sprightly initiation of the progression towards defiant affirmation.  But, if there was thrilling exuberance at the close, Davis, quite appropriately, never allowed the unease to be entirely banished.

Claire Seymour

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