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.

BBC Proms – Of Land, Sea and Sky…

prom-15

Andrew Davis conducting the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra

(c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 15; Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 27 July 2016

Tchaikovsky The Tempest (1873)

Anthony Payne Of Land, Sea and Sky (2016) [BBC commission: World premiere]

Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor (1866) (Ray Chen, violin)

Vaughan Williams Toward the Unknown Region (1906)

The focal point of this evening’s Prom was a first hearing for Of Land, Sea and Sky, the latest work from Anthony Payne and a BBC commission to mark his 80th birthday in a week’s time.

Taking its departure from a description of white horses in the Rhône Valley as they seemed to merge into the surrounding water, this piece comprises eight continuous sections in which the relationship between image and illusion is considered from numerous perspectives.

Payne evidently looked at various texts before deciding to write his own: what resulted is functional in the best sense, each of the choral sections conveying its appropriate imagery without any superfluous literariness. Choral writing is less certain in that it often feels more of a textural gloss on, than integrated into orchestral writing whose clarity and resourcefulness continues from Payne’s previous large-scale works; indeed, the piece as a whole seems to unfold as a sequence of variations on the motifs set out in the opening pages, with an orchestral postlude effecting a final synthesis as the very notion of illusion is rendered in suitably elusive terms.

Of Land, Sea and Sky is typical of Payne in that its approachable (and recognizably English) while never derivative idiom is likely to yield any number of subtleties on repeated hearings. The present performance seemed an assured one, Andrew Davis securing a committed response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in music whose intricacy benefited from the cushioning resonance of the Albert Hall acoustic. This also marked the fourth Proms collaboration between conductor, orchestra and composer, and will hopefully not be the last.

The programme had opened with a hearing for The Tempest, Tchaikovsky’s still relatively unfamiliar symphonic fantasy inspired by, yet by no means indebted to Shakespeare’s play. The framing seascape music, with its sombre horn writing, resonates long after the music has ended, and if what comes in-between – notably the eloquent but unmemorable ‘love’ theme – finds the composer at less than his best, this was perhaps reinforced by a reading that lacked nothing in cohesion without sustaining a cumulative momentum across the piece as a whole.

After the interval, Ray Chen made his much-heralded Proms debut with Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. A little histrionic, the preludial first movement was vividly and at times ardently projected, with a heightened transition into an Adagio whose fervency was purposefully held in check. Nor, other than a slightly hectoring edge in passagework, was there much to fault in the final Allegro; despatched with a flamboyance continued in the encore – Paganini’s 21st Caprice in A, which provided ample means for Chen to display his meaningful virtuosity.

The concert ended with a welcome revival for Vaughan Williams’s Toward the Unknown Region, the composer’s first major success and a piece whose impression is greater than its modest length. If the rapt inwardness of the first half feels more successful than the fervency of what follows, Davis ensured a cumulative tension such as made the final pages – the BBC Symphony Chorus giving its all and the Albert Hall’s organ enhancing the resplendence – a fitting testimony to Walt Whitman’s conviction as to the soul’s tangibility in death as in life.

Richard Whitehouse