Seen and Heard
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
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
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta, (conductor):
Double Decca: 2 CD: 452910.
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