Recorded on 30 March 2021 at Royal Festival Hall, London, and streamed on 15 April 2021
Guest Reviewer: David Gutman
This wasn’t a totally live event, having been pre-recorded at the end of March, and although nicely detailed programme notes were provided no-one had checked the accompanying essay. Elgar’s reputation was, we were assured, affected “by the use of his music in the Last Night of the Proms, when his Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 becomes an opportunity to sing AC Benson’s patriotic “Land of Hope and Glory” amid a sea of flags.” Spot the deliberate mistake? Oh well.
The music-making though will have done the Philharmonia Orchestra’s reputation no harm and John Wilson as always kept somnolence at bay and achieved a high degree of finish.
The programme offered a less radical context for the Vaughan Williams Symphony than that accorded Sir Simon Rattle’s audience-free LSO performance during last year’s truncated Proms season.
Elgar’s Serenade for Strings was given a beautiful, super-articulate reading. Granted, one subito piano in the first movement sounded over-egged: for all I know it could be there in the score. The speeds were ideal, the venue oddly more accommodating, less acoustically fierce with the players spread out over the platform and the auditorium essentially unoccupied. The prophetic Larghetto, understated at first, struck deep with one unexpectedly Wagnerian corner but no sense of emotions being unduly milked.
Astute direction as well for Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; its innate sense of drama ensured that it worked especially well in the empty hall. Red and blue lighting allied to imaginative, mobile camera work played a big part in boosting the atmosphere. Benjamin Hulett [pictured] has a most attractive voice in the mode of Anthony Rolfe Johnson. The inescapably twee ‘Hymn’ was superbly articulated yet the terrors of the ‘Elegy’ and ‘Dirge’ I found overly sane or at least somewhat understated. The strings, perfectly audible in the Keats ‘Sonnet’, were apparently mixed down in favour of the soloists in some of the earlier songs – unless the performers were just being tactful. Chris Parkes, the accomplished horn player, is not a current Philharmonia regular but a refugee from the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Wilson’s own Sinfonia of London.
After a typically unpretentious interval talk with Georgia Mann, one of Radio 3’s better talking heads, Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony seemed less like the promised healing balm than an active symphonic structure. The tempos, swifter than average, were doubtless close to what the composer intended save for the rather deliberate Scherzo in which Wilson followed Previn et al in prioritising enunciation over momentum. I must admit to hankering after the simpler, slower rapture achieved by Martyn Brabbins in the ‘Romanza’. Wilson’s priorities were elsewhere and many will have counted it a plus that a slimmed-down Philharmonia proved capable of generating a richer sonority than the BBC Symphony Orchestra. There were some exquisite pianissimos as well as touches of self-consciously archaic portamento here and there. A few called attention to themselves in sickly-sweet fashion, something that might not have happened had the ensemble been bigger or the miking more distant.
Applause is a problem even in the most carefully conceived of plague-era webcasts. Here, a well-intentioned, somehow awkward smattering was retained following the two bigger works.