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  PROM 9 -  Moeran, Finzi and Elgar: Leon McCawley (piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Vassily Sinaisky, Royal Albert Hall, London, 23.7.2009 (BBr)

E J Moeran:
Symphony in G minor (1924/1937)
Gerald Finzi: Grand Fantasia and Toccata (1928 rev 1953)
Elgar: Symphony No.2 in E flat major, op.63 (1909/1911)

This Prom was dedicated to the memory of Sir Edward and Lady Joan Downes who died on 10 July. It was a fitting tribute to a man who served the  BBC Phil as chief guest conductor, Principal Conductor (1980/1991) and finally as Conductor Emeritus. It was also a wonderful piece of serendipity that tonight’s show included Elgar’s 2ndSymphony for Ted (as he was known to everyone) conducted this work more than any other with the Phil, and the sole performance he gave at the Proms, with this orchestra, in the 80s is one which I shall never forget.

Sinaisky’s magnificent performance last year, at the Proms, of Elgar’s In the South proved him to be a fine Elgarian – he could be a great Elgarian if he were to seat his fiddles left and right instead of bunching them together – and although tonight’s performance might not have been to everyone’s taste it was a fine achievement. After a bold opening paragraph he displayed a fine swagger in the development section but introspection was never far away – ah, that rare spirit of delight was lost – and Sinaisky moulded the various aspects of the music together well.

The great slow movement was well measured and it displayed an occasional hint of vulnerability in the music – Elgar’s self doubt perhaps? – and this was matched by a scherzo which was all helter skelter with a haunted, yet fantastic, cortège in the middle. Sinaisky got to grips with the finale, which can seem loose in form, from the very start making the music full of event, and gave the structure a real sense of cohesion. Especially welcome was the addition of the Albert Hall organ for a few telling bars towards the end. I found this performance to be a very fine exposition of the music but I met friends who were much less taken with it. Perhaps Sinaisky’s view wasn’t conventional – but the performance of music is such a personal experience that no one performance will ever satisfy everyone. It affected me greatly and even though it didn’t scale the heights as did Downes’s Prom performance some 25 years ago this was a worthy successor.

That Sinaisky wasn’t as successful with the Moeran as he was with the Elgar is not really his fault. Playing it as if it were a masterpiece – which it certainly isn’t – only served to show up the flaws in the writing. The first two movements are superb; from the simplicity of the folk–like opening theme, through the dreamy, slow (how often does this happen in English music of this period?) second theme into the, almost, violent fires of the development section, Sinaisky was at home and brought out the strengths of the music. The bleak landscape of Norfolk, the inspiration for the slow movement, was very well realised in this performance and the atmosphere was as haunting and lonely in its devastatingly stark beauty. It was the scherzo and finale which suffered from Sinaisky’s high power treatment,  for the material simply cannot stand to be looked at too carefully, as it was here. In their recordings, both Boult and Handley realised the flaws in the music and underplayed these movements and so they seemed better than they actually are. Sinaisky merely proved them not be to the match for their predecessors. Sibelius is a big influence in this music and tonight the finale seemed to be made up of huge undigested gobbets of Tapiola. The very end, however, was handled superbly, for this can be a stumbling block in itself, coming almost out of nowhere, and Sinaisky managed to make of it a satisfying conclusion. A flawed work, to be sure, but we must be grateful to the BBC for giving us this opportunity to hear it for there is much fine music it.

Between the Symphonies we heard the Proms première of Gerald Finzi’s Grand Fantasia and Toccata – a marvellous work full of wit and with a dance of life to cap it. Leon McCawley was a fine soloist, giving the six, or so, minutes of the (solo) pseudo Bach Fantasia in a bold and forthright manner and with the orchestra dancing for joy in the Toccata.

A too small audience had much to enjoy tonight but I wonder why the Albert Hall wasn’t full to overflowing? Surely English music – especially English music of this stature – cannot still be scaring off listeners. We were never, really, Ein Land ohne Musik and tonight’s show proved this. Lucky us who were there and can speak of it.

Bob Briggs  


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