Brian Northcott retires with festive Shostakovich, serene Elgar, and demanding Bax

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich, Elgar, Bax: Kristiana Ignatjeva (cello), Exeter Symphony Orchestra / Brian Northcott (conductor). United Reformed Church, Southernhay, Exeter, Devon, 30.11.2019. (RBa)

Brian Northcott

Shostakovich Festive Overture

Elgar – Cello Concerto

Arnold Bax – Symphony No.4

The young Latvian cellist Kristiana Ignatjeva, making her debut in Exeter, treated the audience to the sentimentally telling cornerstone of British twentieth century music: the Elgar Cello Concerto. Tributes must be apportioned between Ignatjeva, Elgar, the conductor Brian Northcott and his orchestra, because the solo cello cut its silky path to our ears with intense feeling. It was never once overwhelmed by orchestra or acoustic and sang its emotive line with clarity. It is a measure of the soloist’s integrity and skill that she moved in perfect accord with the orchestra. One example: the pizzicato episode where she plays in perfect simultaneity with the orchestral cellos. Before this, the concert launched with a tornado from the seventy-strong orchestra, a typically garish concert-opener written within a year of Stalin’s death. Sections of the Festive Overture stalk along like escapees from the first movement of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto written six years after the overture. Even so, there was room for just a suggestion of delicacy in the almost Coates-like pizzicato at the centre of this often brazen firecracker of a piece.

Bax’s Fourth Symphony dates from 1930. It had its premiere in San Francisco under Basil Cameron who, as Basil Hindenburg, had conducted the Torbay Orchestra just down the road from Exeter. The Exeter Symphony gave a performance sans harp (replicated quite well if a little loudly by keyboard) and sans organ but with everything else in place.  Brian Northcott, a Bax aficionado, had in earlier seasons directed performances of Tintagel and November Woods; not to mention Moeran’s G minor symphony. In choosing a Bax symphony for his retirement concert (he is 75), he had been torn between the Seventh Symphony and the Fourth. As I became aware from attending the afternoon rehearsal, the three-movement Bax piece was to be treated to a full-blooded outing. Nothing tentative; nothing held back. It is a work that is something of a feral cavalcade. With so much going on, and at such a pitch of fervour, there were bound to be some moments of lack of definition. The orchestra’s brass was encouraged to be very assertive, so much so that I heard and enjoyed lines from them that I had never previously heard in the handful of commercial recordings. Generally. those wild phrases that leap out of the texture in the first and final movements were delivered with a fiery whiplash, evidence of the dynamic impulse imparted by Northcott. In the slow movement, many nicely balanced moments emerged with full impact. That included, twice over, the Leader Clare Marchant’s Fand-like duo for her solo instrument and for the harp (nicely personified by the keyboard). The Symphony was an exciting no-holds-barred conclusion to the concert.

It was a delight, and for me an education, to chat to the conductor just before the rehearsal, and to hear how his musical persona had been shaped and influenced by his years in Guildford with the Philharmonic during the days of Vernon Handley. Those were the same conductor and orchestra who made the first recording (on Revolution Records) of the Fourth. Interesting, I noted another Revolution Records LP of Bax – Tale the Pine Trees Knew – in Exeter’s Oxfam.

It is an indicator of the rarity of this performance that during the interval two notable Baxians came over for a chat: Andrew Nicoll and Graham Parlett, the author of the definitive Bax catalogue, on which he is labouring towards a second edition. The evening ended with some disarming, well-honed and emotionally well-judged words from Exeter’s Lord Mayor in recognition of the gravitas which Brian Northcott, and his adventurous programming, had brought to the orchestra and to Exeter over a period of more than twenty years.

Rob Barnett

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