ECO/Elgar

And so, again, to Cadogan Hall (03 October), for the English Chamber Orchestra’s first concert of the new season, a 150th birthday tribute to Sir Edward Elgar.

But first, an introductory talk by Humphrey Burton, who gave us an entertaining and informative biography of Elgar, enlivened with reminiscences from his own involvement with the famous Ken Russell TV film.  H showed his immense professionalism by speaking for half an hour without notes (‘and without drawing breath’, as my brother Tony said).  Humphrey was then joined by Paul Watkins to discuss the Elgar Cello Concerto – also very illuminating.

Jolly good, H (he ain’t heavy…).

Then eventually back into the by now crowded hall – the audience apparently consisting, to a large extent, of members of the Burton family and bassoonists (including me, my niece Rosie, her chum [hi, Iona!!] and at least six others that we knew of).

First on the concert programme was the Introduction and Allegro for Strings.  Now this was ideally suited to the Hall (cf. my thoughts on large orchestras in here), and to me it made terrific sense as a piece of chamber music, with the lovely and characterful solo quartet (Stephanie Gonley, Annabelle Meare, Jonathan Barritt, Caroline Dale) handing the music back and forth to each other and the other players as though they were all part of one intimate chamber ensemble.  (Maybe, as Tony pointed out, that wasn’t how Elgar imagined it, having written it to show off the massed strings of the LSO in 1905;  but this approach did it for me).  Here as in the rest of the programme, American conductor Andrew Litton showed himself a fine, sympathetic but no-nonsense Elgarian.

Then came the Nursery Suite, which is fairly fluffy stuff if the truth be told, but always touching, and Elgar’s orchestration is an object lesson and a perennial delight.  William Bennett turned ‘The Serious Doll’ into a way-over-the-top flute concerto, but no one seemed to mind.  Nice violin solos from Stephanie Gonley in the last movement, too.

Julie PriceAfter the interval, a rare treat:  Elgar’s Romance for Bassoon and Orchestra.  The soloist, Julie Price, was the person we had all come to see.  She is a uniquely communicative player, poetic, sonorous, expressive, almost dancing around the stage with her bassoon, but all in the service of the music.  The Romance remains a mysterious, wispy little piece, but she gave it her all.  We all loved it, and her.

Finally (in a rather oddly-shaped programme) came the Cello Concerto.  As Humphrey had pointed out, thanks to Jacqueline du Pre (and Classic FM) this is now one of Britain’s favourite pieces of classical music.  On the other hand, one could argue that Jackie’s heart-on-sleeve, somewhat aggressive delivery did the piece no favours;  I have a recording by Beatrice Harrison, conducted by Elgar himself in 1928, in which her gentle, unassertive approach (playing on gut strings) seems to me much more in the spirit of the piece.  But – as Humphrey had also pointed out – it can take all kinds of interpretations, which is why it is a work of genius.

(A thought:  I would love to hear Caroline Dale play it – I mean ‘as herself’, not as Jackie on the film soundtrack.  She has that Beatrice Harrison delicacy of sound, and I guess a lot of heart and soul too.)

As evidenced both by the pre-performance interview and by his playing, thankfully Paul Watkins leans toward the gentler, Beatrice Harrison manner of playing the Concerto.  However, some of his attacks and gestures still seemed overblown, particularly for the size of the hall, and his vocalisations (or rather mouth-breathing noises) are intrusive. I wonder how you train yourself not to do that??

Still, he flung himself into it;  it is a wonderful piece, wistful and tender but also brave and defiant, and the performance was certainly very effective and very moving, hinting at infinite depths of sadness and nostalgia.  A great evening, and a great start to the ECO’s season – thanks, David.

(…and for me it had the inestimable benefit that the music was not by Wagner!!  😉  )

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[picture stolen from razumovsky.org.uk — thanks!]

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