In concert – Leonidas Kavakos, Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson: Elgar Symphony no.3; Barber & Korngold

Leonidas Kavakos (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 27 February 2020

Barber First Essay Op.12 (1937)
Korngold Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1945)
Elgar, realized Anthony Payne Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.88 (1933; 1993-4)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credit (John Wilson) Sim Canetty-Clarke

It is good to see John Wilson taking up more concert engagements, so putting his talent at the service of symphonic repertoire. Tonight, he directed the Philharmonia in a programme that culminated with quite possibly the finest reading Elgar’s Third Symphony has yet received.

The relatively brief first half commenced with Barber’s First Essay, written in the wake of his soon-to-be ubiquitous Adagio and given a high-profile launch by Arturo Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic. Succinct to a fault, the sombre rumination of its initial section soon makes way for music of brittle aggression (such as Britten surely had in mind writing the Dies irae section of his Sinfonia da Requiem two years later), and reaches a short-lived climax with the return of the piece’s opening which itself subsides into musing expectation.

A timely revival, whereas Korngold’s Violin Concerto now seems almost too familiar since coming in from the cold some quarter-century ago. Leonidas Kavakos has become one of his staunchest advocates, but while his recent Proms account often verged towards the soporific, this evening saw much greater focus; not least an initial Moderato whose yearning melodies were rendered with real incisiveness, then a Romanze whose lush textures and diaphanous harmonies never risked becoming cloying. If the final Allegro was even more impressive, this was because what is ostensibly the weakest movement emerged on a par with those before – Kavakos pointing up its effervescence while keeping any indulgence in check on route to the heady return of its opening theme, in what is a coup de théâtre even by Korngold’s standards.

Wilson has already demonstrated his Vaughan Williams credentials, and is evidently no less at home in Elgar. Some 22 years on from its premiere and the Third Symphony, as realized by Anthony Payne, continues to fascinate and exasperate in equal measure – yet, while there can be no denying its conjectural status, what came over here was Wilson’s conviction as he steered a purposeful course through the opening movement – pulling together what can feel a prolix development then evincing similar grip and determination in the coda. What follows was ideally poised between scherzo and intermezzo, its balletic and song-like strains eliding seamlessly, while the Adagio has seldom sounded more potent in its wrenching dissonances and wan consolation as lead to a coda whose fragmented texture only emphasized its pathos.

On to the finale (Wilson rightly ensured minimal pause between movements) and while there was no lack of finesse in the shaping of its themes, Wilson made relative light of there being no concrete development section by bringing its nominally tentative variants into tensile and, above all, cumulative accord. This carried through into the coda – undoubtedly the best Payne which Elgar never wrote and whose spirit of reaching out towards whatever might lie beyond was palpably conveyed as the music receded, slowly but never disconsolately, toward silence.

At some 50 minutes this was as taut and incisive a reading as the piece can yet have received, but the essential rightness of Wilson’s approach could not be doubted. Payne himself looked mightily impressed, and one can only hope a recording with the Philharmonia is in the offing.

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