Wednesday 6 June 2012

In celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee: Clein/Philharmonia/Gardner, 5 June 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Walton – Crown Imperial
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85
Holst – The Planets

Natalie Clein (cello)
Philharmonia Voices
Philharmonia Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)

I arrived at this concert in somewhat curmudgeonly mood. Why, if a concert celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee must be restricted to English music, need the choice be so chronologically restricted? Would it not be more interesting to include some Byrd or Purcell? What of living composers, Birtwistle being perhaps the most obvious choice, or indeed the Master of the Queen’s Music, or, perish the thought, someone a little younger? Was it not a bit depressing that the audience in the Royal Festival Hall was so lacking in younger faces, and might they not have been attracted by a more varied programme? Was it not still more concerning that I failed to spot a single face in the audience that was not white? Those are all real questions, deserving of real answers, of course, and I could add a pedantic query as to why it was thought appropriate to wear evening tails at 3 o’clock in the afternoon; it was nevertheless heartening to appreciate, as the concert went on, that it was not quite so Establishment-focused as prejudices might have suggested.

There was little, I admit, to have suggested that in the opening number, Walton’s Crown Imperial march, which received an oddly charmless reading from Edward Gardner. It was vigorous, rhythmically alert, superlatively played by the Philharmonia, but mercilessly hard-driven, machine-like even. (A republican protest? Somehow I think that would be to clutch at straws.) It was almost as if Gardner were above all determined to show that he was not Sir Adrian Boult, who conducted the first performance and the 1937 coronation performance, when it was employed to mark the arrival of Queen Mary. Just a hint of a musical smile would have been nice, but this was more Wehrmacht than Westminster Abbey. It was good, though, to hear here and elsewhere the Royal Festival Hall organ being put to good use, on this occasion by Richard Pearce.

With Elgar’s Cello Concerto we found ourselves in very different territory. The first movement proved somewhat problematical. Natalie Clein was keenly attuned to its dark, pained lyricism, but Gardner displayed an alarming tendency to fussy micromanagement, almost as if parodying Sir Simon Rattle, when the apparently ‘natural’ wisdom of a fellow knight such as Sir Colin Davis would have been more welcome. The Philharmonia, however, remained on excellent form, even if the performance were often made to sound more lethargic than spacious. Clein brought a greater nervous intensity than one often hears to her reading, but there is nothing wrong with that; indeed, it helped counsel against easy simplifications and generalisations concerning the composer. Nevertheless, she sounded as though she needed a conductor who would rein in certain tendencies towards the distended. The scherzo fared much better all around, the performance sounding reinvigorated without being unduly driven. A fine balance was struck between lightness and propulsion. The ‘Adagio’ seemed to have benefited from that dose of elixir; it was impassioned without mannerism. Perhaps it was less relaxed than ‘tradition’ would dictate, but there is far more under the surface here than most ‘traditionalists’ would ever notice, let alone admit. Elgar’s troubled soul sang relatively freely here, in what emerged as a post-Great War song without words. The finale bore the weight of what had hone before but again largely without the mannerisms of the first movement. The anger of constraint – social and æsthetic? – sounded, but then it always had: think of Gerontius. Twin torments of a soul and a nation whose day in the sun was already nearing its end sounded movingly. I wished from time to time that Gardner would adopt something of Clein’s freer approach – there were phrases that were still over-regimented – but the Philharmonia continued to provide sterling service. There could be no doubt here that there has been no greater English composer of concertos than Elgar.

Reservations over aspects of Gardner’s approach evaporated when it came to The Planets. The brutalism that characterised Crown Imperial was far more apposite to ‘Mars’, whose ominous, chilling tread was served by strings as savage as brass and percussion. (A protest? Perhaps not intentionally, but a note of dissent could not help but make itself heard for those with ears to hear.) ‘Venus’ was properly Debussyan in colour, though there were times, believe it or not, when odd balances favoured harps unduly over flutes. A finely taken solo from leader Andrew Haveron and warm, ardent Romanticism at the movement’s heart contributed to a splendid performance. ‘Mercury’ was, well, dashingly mercurial. Occasionally I wondered whether it might tip into the rushed or garbled, but that danger was just about averted. The briskness of ‘Jupiter’ proved an intelligent way of avoiding misplaced piety; instead, we experienced a lively, alert celebration of sorts, with a welcome sense of carnival. I liked it very much. It was depressing to see so many in the audience so clearly ‘settle down’ for ‘the big tune’, despite Gardner’s highly creditable refusal to milk it, opting instead for touching Elgarian nobility. (Still, a reminder of how England has changed would greet the conservative tendency as soon as it emerged from the hall into Lambeth and Southwark.) Sadly, and not for the first time, some elected to applaud at the movement’s close. ‘Saturn’ exhibited the right measure of mystery and dignity. Tread here was processional, almost liturgical, quite opposed to the militarism of ‘Mars’. Rejoicing, bells-and-all, when it came, remained equivocal, with a welcome hint of Mussorgsky. Near-daemonic possession was the hallmark of ‘Uranus’, its kinship to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice especially apparent. And finally, the strangeness of the opening woodwind solos to ‘Neptune’ was rendered abundantly clear, reminding us that we were not so very far from The Rite of Spring. There was something intriguingly beguiling and not just international but alien to this conclusion. Off-stage voices contributed, of course, but so did orchestral colour and balance. A considerably more questioning affair, then, than I had initially envisaged.