Tuesday, July 12, 2022

King William Walk, Greenwich, London SE10

Guest Reviewer, Robert Matthew-Walker

The innovative Music X Museums series in London has presented three orchestral concerts during April and May this year – at the V&A, the British Library, and the Science Museum. This fourth was the first concert ever given literally underneath the hull of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. The concept for this venue was surprising for many music-lovers – including, it must be said, your correspondent – but the acoustics for the Philharmonia Orchestra under the excellent Oliver Zeffman were not at all disappointing – in fact, the size of the great ship, running across the heads of the audience, successfully bifurcated the sound (although not too much), sending it left and right and back, invariably rich and deep, with remarkable realism and genuine musical effect.

The result, as implied, was not distracting but actually enhancing in the rarely-heard – although entirely appropriate – Sea Sketches by Grace Williams. This beautifully-composed work for string orchestra (1944) is a rather more important score than its title implies; throughout its varied five movements the committed quality of the Philharmonia strings was admirable – mention must be made of the final solo viola phrasing of Yukiko Ogura, wholly organic yet beautifully individual.

Woodwind, brass and percussion (plus harp) joined the strings for Elgar’s Sea Pictures, with Dame Sarah Connolly. Here were riches indeed, one felt, although this time the acoustic-under-the-hull did not permit her voice to blend with the fuller instrumentation as one would ideally have hoped. Nonetheless, Dame Sarah’s characterisation and musicianship were fully in evidence, and her projection of character and expressive vocal line were as fine as one dared hope in the unusual surroundings, most notably in a wonderful account of the final (and most difficult) of Elgar’s settings, ‘The Swimmer’. Throughout, Dame Sarah’s rapport with Zeffman was admirable, and one looks forward to hearing this masterly score with the same soloist and conductor in a more vocally sympathetic ambiance.

In the centre of Greenwich, close by the Cutty Sark, is St Alfege’s Church, built on the site where Alfege, Archbishop of Canterbury, was martyred over 1,000 years ago; Henry VIII was baptised in this church, and Thomas Tallis’s organ is still there, the manuals protected behind a glass front.  Tallis was buried in St Alphege Churchyard in 1585, so it was entirely appropriate to end this concert with Vaughan Williams’s great Tallis Fantasia. If ever a work seems to lend itself (I almost wrote ‘bend itself’) to whichever acoustic it happens to be performed it is this undoubted masterpiece. On this occasion, Zeffman was musical sensitivity and intelligence personified, aided by the great space in which the Philharmonia strings played, with the solo ensemble (not the section leaders) way back. Together with Ogura, leader Zsolt-TihamĂ©r Visontay wove wondrous threads in the closing pages – the profound internationalism of this profound masterpiece set forth as one would have desired.

The Elgar Birthplace in Danger.

Music for strings by English composers – National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rimma Sushanskaya at St John’s Smith Square.