Andrew Gourlay Proves to be in Assured Control of the BBC Philharmonic in Lancaster

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Edward Cowie, Tchaikovsky: Julian Bliss (clarinet), BBC Philharmonic / Andrew Gourlay (conductor), Great Hall, Lancaster University, Lancashire, 7.2.2019. (MC)

Mendelssohn Overture, Ruy Blas (Rob Roy)

Edward Cowie Concerto for clarinet, Ruskin’s Dream Coniston

Tchaikovsky Symphony No.6, Pathétique

The BBC Philharmonic regularly play at Kendal, but I am not sure how long it has been since it performed at Lancaster. With this concert BBC Philharmonic cemented its recently revived partnership with Lancaster University which bodes well for the future. The orchestra was certainly well received by the audience and it was pleasing to see a number of students in attendance.

As far as music programming is concerned this was one of the best-balanced concerts I have attended. The centrepiece was a contemporary work, Edward Cowie’s Clarinet Concerto Ruskin’s Dream Coniston no doubt unfamiliar to most people. Positioned either side of the Cowie were Mendelssohn’s Overture to Ruy Blas (Rob Roy) a work that is often overlooked in concert programmes and Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, undoubtedly one of the best loved symphonies ever written.

Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas Overture served as an ideal curtain raiser. This quickly written piece was intended to accompany an 1839 Leipzig performance of Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas. A stylish figure on the podium, Andrew Gourley brought an effective sweep and naturalness to this fresh, sparkling, and uplifting score.

Cowie’s Clarinet Concerto titled Ruskin’s Dream – Coniston was premièred as recently as May 2016 by BBC Philharmonic with soloist Julian Bliss. More about mood than melody this single movement work took around twenty-seven minutes to perform. It is a reasonably accessible work requiring a moderate degree of concentration. Famous writer and artist John Ruskin is inexorably associated with the Lake District with his former home Brantwood overlooking Coniston Water. Incidentally this concert was actually given on the eve of the 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birth. With a succession of short repeated themes, the soloist is pitted against contrasting backgrounds of distinctive swathes of orchestral sound with prominent use of percussion. Strong in visual imagery, rather than the actual lake at Coniston, the music evoked to me more of a nocturnal forest scene awash with nature sounds scurrying, bubbling away with suggestions of flickering, star filled skies. One particularly weighty climax convincingly suggested a savage storm and overall an undertow of dark foreboding never seemed far away. As relative calm is restored the work ends but we all know that the force of nature will prevail. With Bliss in such irresistible form this was a memorable performance of a work that made a significant positive impact which I was glad to have the opportunity of hearing. I have made it a point to certainly investigate other Cowie works. The composer, who was in the audience, was called to the stage to take a well-deserved bow.

Few symphonies can be as heart-wrenching as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 Pathétique which could almost serve as a symphonic autobiography of the troubled composer’s life. It is a symphony that I have heard many times in the concert hall and all too often performances can sound routine but no problems here with playing from the BBC Philharmonic that held my attention from the first bar to the last. In his reading Gourlay obtained from his players a satisfying balance of depth of passion with adequate power, careful not to resort to an interpretation of cloying sentimentality. With the orchestra sounding clean and precise, outstanding was the aching passion of the soaring romantic main theme of the opening movement and the clarinet solo toward the end of the movement was a compelling treat. Vitality and dramatic intensity marked the performance, especially in the third movement Allegro molto vivace – a brilliantly scored march which contained that characteristic undercurrent of melancholy. Although robbed of some warmth by the acoustic in the hall I still felt the glory of the high strings with the cellos and basses providing such a firm foundation. Notably the brass section excelled with full-bodied playing yet adopted sensible volume. Sensing a conductor in assured control it was easy to lose track of time in this decidedly involving interpretation of the Pathétique.

 Michael Cookson

 This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast.

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