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Butterworth, Elgar, Holst/Matthews, Steven Isserlis (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus Ladies Choir, Richard Hickox (conductor), RFH, 18th November, 2004 (AR)


A foreigner seeking to find real English music, well played and stimulating, would have been very disappointed by this concert. Except for a splendid Elgar Cello Concerto, and the equally splendid Mr. Isserlis, Richard Hickox’s programme of English ‘classics’ was a dreary affair. The concert got off to a less than flying start with George Butterworth’s The Bank of Green Willow. Anodyne music by anyone’s standards, this could have been a sound track to an animated version of ‘Wind in The Willows’. It was gentle, bromidic and bucolic, played by an etiolated Philharmonia Orchestra, seemingly disinterested.


Things mightily improved with what turned out to be a sublime account of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Many have come to this work through Jacqueline Du Pré’s overwrought performance filled with emotional overkill. Steven Isserlis’ interpretation was the antithesis of Du Pré’s in its subtle reserve. Indeed, in the opening passages it was this very inner reserve which emphasised the pathos and the passion of the work. This was not to say that he did not play it with feeling: all the emotion was there, but without the excess of histrionics one often hears. With the opening Adagio Isserlis realised that the music should be played as simply as possible – as written – and this provided all the necessary emotion. He has learnt what good actors know – however tempting it may be to have a great time tearing a passion to tatters, it is the audience’s emotions that must be stirred.


Isserlis, playing the Feuermann Stradivarius (1730) produced a magically translucent sound and ravishing tone. The Adagio was tastefully understated, whilst the Allegro had an appropriately gruff, rugged quality to it. In the quieter passages before the closing of the work, Isserlis produced a mellow, achingly melancholic mood of distilled silver sounds. This was a very satisfying and thoughtful performance that really made one listen afresh to Elgar’s music.


Gustav Holst’s The Planets was given an uninspired and routine performance by Hickox who seemed indifferent to the score and lacked authority over his players. While the percussion were superb in the opening ‘Mars’, Hickox failed to tease out the terror in the music. ‘Venus’ was flat footed and four square, and ponderously dragged into infinity with the Philharmonia strings sounding unusually thin. Apart from some superb timpani playing, ‘Mercury’ was under-nourished with the woodwind lacking pointed focus. There was little real jollity in ‘Jupiter’, which sounded brash and harsh, verging on noise for noise’s sake. The saving grace was a ‘Saturn’ which was all brooding atmosphere and drama, with some wonderfully sparkling harp playing and fine, deep double basses. ‘Neptune’ was boomy and bland and the LSO Women’s Chorus sounded so far away that they could well have been on Neptune; not so much subtle as stingy.


As an added bonus (one uses the word loosely) Hickox threw in ‘Pluto the Renewer’, composed by Colin Matthews in 2000 as an optional final movement and dedicated to the memory of Holst's daughter, Imogen; it just seemed out of kilter. Whilst Matthews obviously didn’t want to be a mere pasticheur of Holst, his Pluto still lacked a sense of style.


Alex Russell


Further listening:

Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto; Enigma Variations; Lynn Harrell (cello), Cleveland Orchestra, Lorin Maazel (conductor); Los Angeles Philharmonic, Zubin Mehta (conductor): Decca, Eloquence: CD: 450 021-2.


Gustav Holst: The Planets; John Williams: Star Wars Suite;
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, (conductor):
Double Decca: 2 CD: 452910.



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