Thursday, February 10, 2022

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

It was straight into the Concerto, cold, very unsatisfactory when an ‘overture’, whether named as such or not, would have been desirable to get the evening off to a racy start. From Walton, Portsmouth Point or Scapino, or Vaughan Williams’s Wasps, or, given John Wilson’s current championing of his music, a little something by Eric Coates (Merrymakers Overture, say): four out of numerous choices. (Tom Service recently discussed the lack of ‘overtures’ in contemporary programming: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001322t.)

William Walton composed his Violin Concerto for Heifetz (he recorded it twice), mostly in 1938. It’s a languorous and volatile work, impassioned and nostalgic. Wilson ensured contrasts and vividness, while James Ehnes played with technical assurance, an expansive line and plenty of high-wire virtuosity … yet, there was a brusqueness and an impatience present, mostly from the conductor, and Ehnes, bow-on-strings mastery aside, never quite captured the romance, the eloquent reminiscing or the breezy lyricism of the music (composed in Ravello), aspects of Walton’s soul and confidentiality that are enshrined therein: tolerably well-performed in terms of mechanics but not especially involving as an emotional experience, the ultimate coda a little pushed through, short-changed, similar to Heifetz, yet with less frisson. As an encore, Ehnes played one of his regular extras, Paganini’s Caprice in G-minor (16/24), fully the marked Presto, and brilliant as such.

Elgar’s First Symphony was suitably semplice at the outset, but the main body of the first movement, although occasionally flexible, was also driven enough to render the composer’s ardency as being rather streamlined – a quart of ‘Elgar Essentials’ became a pint of ‘Wilson Whizzbang’, somewhat brass-heavy, too (as broadcast). The Scherzo sped along, the Philharmonia in good nick, and you can’t accuse Wilson of indulging those passages that invite some sort of ‘stretch’ (affection). There were sensitivities to behold – the close of the first movement; the transition into the Adagio; but the latter lacked the deepest of feelings (at similar tempos, Elgar himself and Boult did express them, Solti even more so, all as recorded) if not lovely clarinet arabesques, although in the concluding couple of minutes Wilson yielded (at last) – to heart-melting effect. The Finale, opening to surreptitious tread, then with purposeful charge, becoming a broad if integrated panorama, and further directional determination, was always pointing towards a spirited (consciously anti-pomp?) if hemmed-in wrapping up.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00147xb

Heifetz’s second recording of the Walton (1950, using the composer’s revised orchestration, and it’s Walton himself conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra)

Vernon Handley (1930-2008) – remembered fondly as man and musician – conducts Elgar’s First Symphony with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Recorded on September 2, 1994, in Perth. [Reasonable sound if with a crackly background.]

Eric Coates’s Merrymakers Overture: the composer’s LSO recording, which “took place in EMI’s Abbey Road Studio One on 3rd November 1931”, the month the venue opened for business; maybe this Coates (HMV C.2449) was the first recording made there?