Edward Gardner’s Philadelphia debut demonstrates a fine sense of musical proportion

United StatesUnited States Britten, Daugherty, Elgar: Paul Jacobs (organ), Philadelphia Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor). Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 28.2.2020. (BJ)

Edward Gardner (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem Op.20
Michael Daugherty – Once Upon a Castle
Elgar – Variations on an Original Theme Op.36, ‘Enigma’

It would be hard to think of a more suitable combination of works as vehicles for a well-established English conductor  making his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra than Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations. Edward Gardner, the 45-year-old former music director of the English National Opera and recently named principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led both of these works with an assurance and artistry that demonstrated his worthiness for such appointments, as well as explaining the succession of principal guest conductor posts he has been garnering around Europe.

Unheard at these concerts for the last 14 years, the Britten piece was presented with a blend of imagination and dynamic restraint (reminiscent, perhaps, of Kurt Masur’s way with Mahler and Riccardo Muti’s Tchaikovsky, both of which stressed proportion of sonorities rather than mere loudness) that proved in the Elgar to be entirely characteristic of Gardner’s approach.

Still, fine as his Britten was, it reminded me of the frequent imbalance between public reputation and  personal memories. There are surely many among the present ranks of concert and opera enthusiasts for whom names like Victor de Sabata, Guido Cantelli, and Tullio Serafin still retain some familiarity among the annals of Italian conductors beside the towering personality of Toscanini. Mention, however, of Nino Sanzogno (1911-1983) would probably not ring bells for many contemporary listeners  Yet it was Sanzogno, in a London concert that also included outstanding performances of Dallapiccola’s Job and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, that realized Britten’s masterfully managed transition from the hurtling terrors of the Sinfonia’s ‘Dies irae’ movement into the relative tranquillity of the concluding ‘Requiem aeternam’ with a bloodcurdling vividness that has outshone all other performances in the half-century since I heard it.

I do not have a comparable memory to adduce in the context of ‘Enigma’. Here, Gardner’s interpretation was by no means outshone by memories of the many excellent ones I have encountered over the years. The penchant mentioned above for dynamic moderation – Gardner’s ‘Nimrod’, for example, was far from the overwhelming sonic experience it can be – that served to accentuate his evident feeling that making the biggest fortissimo in the world can only obscure the sense of airy polyphony that threw welcome new light on this so familiar score.

Not, let me emphasize, that there was any lack of necessary heft at appropriate points in Gardner’s beautifully proportioned reading. Indeed, it was noticeable – and bad luck for the afternoon’s comtemporary composer – that the organ’s entry into Elgar’s finale made a more visceral impact than Michael Daugherty’s writing for the instrument in his Once upon a Castle, subtitled ‘symphonic concertante for organ and orchestra’. The soloist, Paul Jacobs, showed all his admirable virtuosity here and in his encore offering of Bach’s D-major fugue from BWV 532. But if, as someone has convincingly suggested, a new movement should essentially be marked by its embarking on a different set of contrasts – a principle that even as great a composer as Ravel fell somewhat short of fulfilling in his Sonatine and his G-major Piano Concerto – Daugherty’s first two movements offered no such shift of voice, his movement I being followed by movement II without any new shaft of musical illumination. The differences of character from one movement to another suggested by the composer’s program note found no echo in what I actually heard.

Bernard Jacobson

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