Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture Op.26 ‘Fingal’s Cave’ (1830, rev. 1832)
Elgar Sea Pictures Op.37 (1899)
Dvořák Symphony no.5 in F major Op.75 (1875, rev. 1887)
Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra / John Eliot Gardiner
Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 16 February 2023
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Picture credits – John Eliot Gardiner (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke; Alice Coote (c) Jiyang Chen
This was an ultimately invigorating concert, using a cleverly constructed programme to look at how composers respond to the earth itself.
We began off the west coast of Scotland, the Inner Hebrides to be exact – and the uninhabited island of Staffa. Here it was that Mendelssohn saw Fingal’s Cave (above) in the summer of 1829. His musical response has become one of the composer’s best-loved pieces, an early and remarkably vivid example of the symphonic poem. Under John Eliot Gardiner, the Philharmonia Orchestra recounted the scene with remarkable accuracy, capturing the unusual, organ-like appearance of the landmark as well as the sea spray crashing around it. Gardiner steered a sure-footed and clear course through the water, aided by a wonderful clarinet duet from Mark van de Wiel and Laurent Ben Slimane in the second theme.
Alice Coote (above) then joined the orchestra, transporting us to the rarefied waters of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, the mezzo-soprano bringing to life five carefully chosen gems that took the composer far from his desk in Malvern in 1899. It took a while for singer and orchestra to achieve the optimum balance, so the words on the screen above were helpful as Coote found her feet. She did so quickly, and the somnambulant atmosphere of Sea Slumber-Song was cast, the strings lapping at the edges of Coote’s beautifully placed words. As she grew into the role so the gently rocking In Capri was attractively weighted and subtly intense.
Sabbath Morning At Sea was solemn yet soon reached for the heights, Coote’s innate grasp of the text matched by Gardiner’s control and shaping of the melodic line from the orchestra. The celebrated Where Corals Lie was perhaps inevitably the highlight, but The Swimmer ran it close, running all the way to a richly coloured high register from the singer at the end. Support came from the depths, too, with Alistair Young’s sensitive contribution on the Royal Festival Hall organ one to savour.
We returned to land for Dvořák’s Symphony no.5, the work with which he ‘rebooted’ his career as an orchestral composer in 1887, his publisher having spotted an opportunity to re-promote a piece finished in 1875. In this concert the parallel with the seasons was irresistible, the symphony’s first movement in particular resembling the flourishing of flowers in spring. Fleet footed strings were complemented by fresh faced woodwind, headed by the burbling clarinets who shone once again in the opening theme.
The Fifth is a sunny work, sitting in the shadow of the last three symphonies (nos.7-9) where live performances are concerned. As this concert revealed, however, it is a descendant of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, a work with considerable depth of its own and many different orchestral colours in which to revel. After a vivacious first movement, where Dvořák’s themes were given the best possible chance to shine, the cellos took the lead in their burnished opening to the romantic slow movement. This serious, minor key theme – surprisingly similar to the main tune of the Mendelssohn – was supplemented by an attractive, triple-time dance in the major key.
The slow movement segued effortlessly into the Scherzo, where the flurry of violins conjured up a vision of dancers trying to find their feet on the floor. The give and take between orchestral sections was a delight both to hear and to watch, as it was in the finale. The material here turns a little sour initially, Dvořák struggling manfully to regain the positive demeanour of the first movement. In Gardiner’s hands this was a compelling argument, ultimately won with the help of the superb Philharmonia brass, trombones punching out their melodies to thrilling effect. Once the ‘home’ key was reached the winter storms retreated and we basked in glorious musical sunshine, capping a fine evening where spring really did seem within touching distance.
You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the Philharmonia Orchestra website.