Tadaaki Otaka’s triumphant return to Cardiff in Elgar

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar, Britten, Maconchy: Simone Lamsma (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 25.3.2023. (PCG)

Tadaaki Otaka conducts violinist Simone Lamsma and the BBC NOW © Yusef Bastawy

Elizabeth MaconchyNocturne for Orchestra
Britten – Violin Concerto, Op.15
Elgar – Symphony No. 2 in E flat minor, Op.63

Modern listeners correctly regard Elgar’s Second Symphony as an evocation of the Edwardian era of the 1900s. It still comes as a shock to realise that it was written three years before that richly romantic and decaying society crashed to its demise in the trenches of the First World War. And it epitomised the sense of doomed civilisation that clearly prevailed in the minds of many contemporaries – not that most of the critics at the first performance in 1911 realised as much. In 2019, Richard Westwood-Brookes published Elgar and the Press: A life in newsprint, an invaluable compendium of reviews. In it, he assembled a full fifteen pages of press cuttings which almost entirely failed to appreciate what Elgar was trying to achieve. Only two writers even noticed how the sinister theme from the first movement erupts in barbaric and aggressive ferocity in the Rondo third-movement, which they all otherwise persisted in regarding as a mere jolly high-spirited trifle. Enormous amounts of print were expended on arguing whether the second movement should be regarded as a funeral march or a lament. No wonder that Elgar complained of incomprehension in an audience who ‘sat there like stuffed pigs’.

At this performance in St David’s Hall there could surely have been no possibility of incomprehension. The superb orchestral playing stinted nothing in accuracy, energy or passion. You could also hear in the third movement the shells whistle through the ruined masonry and see in the second movement the distant gunfire at the royal funeral disturb the fluttering pigeons. The music is of exceptional difficulty even for such a master orchestral technician as Elgar, but the balances were exceptionally well realised, and clarity was of the essence. Even in the finale the sudden trumpet eruption in the central section was integrated so the principal theme in the bass was not overshadowed.

One point of purely personal criticism: the oboe triplet theme in the second movement, like a crying woman in the crowd was not quite prominent enough against the ominous but slightly over-loud accompanying bass funeral music (even if Steve Hodson played it sensitively and passionately). But then this is always a passage problematic to balance in live performance. Even Sir Adrian Boult in his final BBC Proms performance of the symphony, released on CD some years back, failed to bring it off. Tadaaki Otaka was in his element. He even managed to bring some sense of catharsis to the finale after the turbulence of the preceding movements. Even so, I still have the uneasy feeling that Elgar did not really know where to go next in symphonic terms – not until twenty years later he penned that extraordinary vicious rending apart of parallel open fifths at the opening of his Third Symphony.

Britten’s Violin Concerto is also seems oddly to become uneasily unsure of its bearings in the final movement. After a rapturous opening and reams of brilliant passagework, Britten settles into a large-scale passacaglia where the orchestra assumes centre-stage and the solo violinist stands uncomfortably long as a silent observer. This curious neglect rarely impinges on recorded performances but becomes more problematic under live conditions. Not here. Simone Lamsma proved from the first to be uncommonly involved in the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra. She played without a score and frequently half-turned to face the orchestra. She thus aided and abetted their infectious rhythms, and at one stage seemed to enter into a challenge with Philippe Schartz’s feisty trumpet. Her attack on the 1718 Stradivarius instrument was merciless and unremitting. I do not recall ever having heard such pinging high pizzicato notes in a live performance, positively resonating out even over Britten’s full-sized orchestra. During the silent passages in the finale, she was equally committed to the progress of the music. She even turned her back on the audience at one point to engage more closely with the orchestra while she continued to play. Not for one second did she sacrifice tone or clarity even in the most stratospheric reaches. Tadaaki Otaka, a diminutive figure by the side of her statuesque presence, clearly relished the sense of conflict that she brought to the score, which thereby gained in stature.

The concert had begun with a real novelty in the shape of Elizabeth Maconchy’s early 1950 Nocturne for Orchestra, a work I had not known. Stephen Johnson wrote excellent programme notes (and contributed a very perceptive commentary on Elgar’s symphony and its descriptive elements). He pointed out that Maconchy is now remembered principally for her chamber music, and that her own lack of confidence in her orchestral abilities made her destroy two symphonies. Lady Bracknell springs inevitably to mind: ‘To destroy one symphony, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to destroy two, looks like carelessness.’ On the basis of the Nocturne, I completely fail to comprehend such reticence. The orchestral writing is always idiomatic, even romantic in places, with resonances of Britten, Bax and even her friend Grace Williams; some melodic writing for the trumpet anticipates by five years Williams’s Penillion. The thematic invention, not the most immediately catching, was nonetheless well-crafted and lay well for the instruments. The writing for the celesta in particular was original, intriguing and inventive. And the work rose from delicately impressionistic beginnings to a real emotionally clinching climax. If the piece had a descriptive programme – it felt as if there might have been one – it remained undisclosed. Perhaps a more resonant title might have helped establish the work in the repertory, but it remains inexplicably and unjustly unrepresented even in the recording catalogues.

A disappointingly small audience was hard to explain despite an unexpectedly heavy downpour of rain. Perhaps the Cardiff audience feels that, with the Violin Concerto a couple of weeks ago, they had had their fill of Elgar for the month. They were wrong: this was a superb performance of a score that is difficult even today. I am delighted that BBC Radio 3 are proposing to relay the concert in full as one of their evening programmes. I would recommend that anyone who loves the Second Symphony as much as I do makes every effort to hear that broadcast, or catch it on BBC Sounds. Maconchy’s piece is well worth investigation too.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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