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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Britten, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams: Melvyn Tan (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley (conductor): QEH 14.04. 2007 (AVE)


Due to a mixture of bad luck and bad health (and even road accidents and nose bleeds in the past) – Vernon Handley has rarely been seen conducting in the flesh in the last thirty years in London, so it was a rare opportunity to catch him tonight conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the second concert of their Britain in the 1930s weekend series at the South Bank.

The LPO made Handley its Associate Conductor in recognition of his long association with the orchestra. Handley was a protégé of Sir Adrian Boult, and his only true successor, and his economic conducting technique is strikingly akin to Boult’s with its elegance of line and crystal clarity of beat: a feature sadly missing amongst many contemporary conductors.

Their concert began with a beautifully phrased and enthusiastically played performance of Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony, written when the composer was 21. The work came across as not so much as ‘simple’ but rather as a case of ‘retarded development’ regarding the score’s ‘backwardness’   in stark contrast to the maturity and inventiveness of the 19 year old Shostakovich’s First Symphony

The Boisterous Bourrée was rhythmically buoyant and played with a lilting grace whilst the Playful Pizzicato was agile and rustic; the Sentimental Saraband initiated a weighty and dark-toned string tone from the LPO but the music it self lacked a sense of sentiment and sounding rather sedate. The Frolicsome Finale was conducted with great vigour with the divided LPO strings sounding both gusty and gutsy. Handley conducted through out with a graceful clear-cut precision and youthful energy clearly relishing every moment.

Melvyn Tan gave a refreshingly risky – some would say ‘controversial’ - interpretation of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Yet  Handley’s authoritative guidance held Tan’s almost anarchic playing earth-bound and together in perfect unison with conductor and orchestra. Throughout Tan was attentive to Handley’s direction and to the tone and colour of the woodwind where Tan blended perfectly with their voices.

The interpretation of the Largo was rather fragmented, detached and played with a sterner, harder tone, making the music sound strikingly modern and almost atonal; I have never heard this movement sound so stark and eerie, and it is this kind of style which  makes Tan such an interesting and true musician – never being solely a slave to the score but bringing in his own subjective emotions with the realisation that the score is not some sort of truth set in stone but a beginning to open out the sensations of our being: music is always already more than mere notes on paper, and critics who are slaves to the score often are so, in my view, because they are too anally-retentive and emotionally confused to write about their real feelings about the music.

For an encore Tan played one of Beethoven's Bagatelles with breath taking speed and verve, delighting a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5 in D is a score that requires vast space to allow the sounds to breathe and glow, for this is essentially open-air music evoking the sensation of distance spaces and stretching skies. The claustrophobic Queen Elizabeth Hall acoustic simply cannot take the eternal spaces that symphonies require to expand in - as was the case with Mahler’s Seventh Symphony performed not so long ago at the QEH. 

Whilst Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5 is not so heavily scored as Mahler’s, it still suffered from sounding too close-up and in- your-face, thus negating a sense of intimacy, distance and melancholy - as with the solemn horn solos in the first movement.

Handley perfectly judged the tempi of the Preludio, articulating a sense of a gradually unfolding striving motion whilst the sparkling Scherzo had both a rhythmic tautness and a fleeting grace as the woodwinds made their pointed interjections between punctuated brass and swirling strings; yet the brass came across as far too loud and strident (again due to the close acoustic).

The Romanze is arguably amongst the greatest music ever written for woodwind – simple and serene – and the LPO woodwind soloists simply shone out – I simply cannot imagine the BPO or VPO woodwinds – or even those reedy Russian woodwinds - sounding so divine.

Again the Passacaglia Moderato suffered from sounding far too loud and congested – notably the brass – which again destroyed the sensations of space and silence that the sounds need to breathe their being in. The serene closing passages reminded me of the closing bars of the last movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony but without that composer’s  sentimentality  – and actually came across as far finer and more economically composed that the Mahler (but it is not fashionable to say this today).

In the closing bars I was moved to tears by the soft string playing and the serene violin solo; Handley let the music fade into a sublime divine nothingness. As I heard the serene sounds fading away I said to myself: “I want to die to be with the one I love” as the music reminded me of my loving partner dying and fading away in front of me, floating off free towards an ‘unknown region’ where ‘all will be well.’

Being does not die,  as music does not die. For our being – like our music – does not die but merely fades away and moves on forward.. Music is the sound and sensation of being without a score, being there without a body there as becoming being time forever: the body dies but being – like sound – lives on forever as the being-sound of time - free from the score – free from the body.

Where do the sounds of music go to? Where do the sensations of being go to? Towards an ‘unknown region’ where we become being-music-time.

Or to quote Vaughan Williams:

“But in the next world I shan't be doing music, with all the striving and disappointments. I shall be being it.”

After such a profoundly moving musical experience Vernon Handley rightly received repeated ‘bravos’ each time he returned to the podium where he pointed to the sublime score – in my viewthe greatest British symphony ever written.


Alex Verney-Elliott (formerly Alex Russell)

Further listening:

Benjamin Britten: Simple Symphony: Northern Sinfonia, Steuart Bedford (conductor): NAXOS CD: 8.557205.

Ludwig Van Beethoven:
The Five Piano Concertos: Melvyn Tan, (piano) London Classical Players, Roger Norrington (conductor): Virgin Classics: 4 CDs: 5 62242 2.


Ralph Vaughn Williams: Symphony No. 5, Flos Campi, Oboe Concerto: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley (conductor): EMI: Classics for Pleasure: CD: 5 75311-2.

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, one of the longest established live music review web sites on the Internet, publishes original reviews of recitals, concerts and opera performances from the UK and internationally. We update often, and sometimes daily, to bring you fast reviews, each of which offers a breadth of knowledge and attention to performance detail that is sometimes difficult for readers to find elsewhere.

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