Saturday, July 16, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

Maybe William Walton’s exuberant Partita should have opened the evening rather than Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia, the latter sitting better in the second half prior to Enigma Variations. But it was the VW that got us started. It stole in magically and spaciously, Thomas Tallis’s theme delivered ardently and with dynamic panache, releasing into the distant and smaller string group, a centuries-old response. The quartet (led by Charlie Lovell-Jones) was an eloquent ensemble, but John Wilson was now starting to harry the music, speeding it to a climax less than ecstatic, a mix of applying the brakes if sliding on ice.

It’s no surprise that Walton’s Partita is a particular challenge to play, given it was composed for one of the great orchestras and conductors, the Cleveland and George Szell. They made a touchstone recording of compelling interpretation and phenomenal execution. Sinfonia of London and Wilson had a good go at it, if too fast in the opening ‘Toccata’, something of a scramble if strikingly together albeit without the clarity of Szell and his Clevelanders. From Wilson the middle movement lacked the last degree of seduction, and although the ‘Gigue’ Finale hustled and bustled, there was more to find in it, such as twinkle-in-the-eye humour, witness the trumpet tune.

Arnold Bax’s Tintagel (of Arthurian Legend, as pictured) was short on expanse and description, the ‘big tune’ moved along to its detriment (Wilson seems to not do ‘heart on sleeve’) – long shadows cast by Barbirolli, Boult, Handley and Lloyd-Jones don’t help – if with some dramatic incident later that pricked the ears as the oceanic sea, landscape and Nature vie for supremacy.

As for Enigma Variations (using Christopher Hogwood’s edition … that’s news, Wilson also seeking a back-to-basics approach). The performance started well, lovingly, and some of the friends’ portraits were finely captured, irrespective of tempo (‘Troyte’ was terrifically fast, and terrific) while ‘Nimrod’, without its in memoriam associations, was panoramic. Variations XII & XIII were well-searched, although Elgar’s self-portrait to conclude was strangely anonymous, the final bars, even with the ad-lib organ, just a little underwhelming – this really is a give-it-big moment, such as Proms performances by Slatkin and, even more so, Rozhdestvensky (see Comments), Andrew Litton’s BIS recording, or Martyn Brabbins’s exemplary Hyperion version.

There was an encore: ‘At the Dance’ from Eric Coates’s Summer Days Suite – quite delightful, a composer championed by Wilson for Chandos.

Placed second in the concert and the highlight of it, Huw Watkins’s impressive Flute Concerto (2013), written for Adam Walker – first-performed with the LSO and Daniel Harding, and he’s recorded it on NMC with the Hallé and Ryan Wigglesworth. He shone in this Proms appearance: amazing dexterity in the iridescent opening, wonderful tone in the lyrical passages, and an ability to make each note significant, with well-placed support from an energised Sinfonia, and then gentle eddies strum the pastoral middle movement, Walker remaining busy, as he was in the opening stages of the Finale, the orchestra equally animated and rhythmically alert … then instead of heading for a grandstand finish as orchestral tumult suggests, the activity remains until a sudden stopping, as if the music continues yet is now out of earshot.

John Wilson & Sinfonia of London record music by John Ireland for Chandos.

The Elgar Birthplace in Danger.