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Three Choirs Festival 2010 (4) - Music by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Elgar: Philippe Graffin (violin); Philharmonia Orchestra; Sir Roger Norrington

Gloucester Cathedral 10.8.2010 (JQ)


Holst: St Paul’s Suite

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61

This concert celebrated two highly significant English musical centenaries. Vaughan Williams’s ‘Tallis’ Fantasia, which was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival, was heard for the first time at a Festival concert in Gloucester Cathedral on 6 September 1910. The composer conducted and the remainder of that concert was devoted to another ‘first’ – the first performance at a Gloucester Three Choirs of The Dream of Gerontius, which was also conducted by its composer. How apt, then, that Vaughan Williams and Elgar should appear together on this programme too.

Gloucester can’t quite claim the première of the Elgar Violin Concerto, which was given in London in November 1910. However, a few weeks earlier, when Elgar and Fritz Kreisler, who was to première the concerto, were both in Gloucester for the Three Choirs, there were two private run-through performances of the new concerto. Kreisler played the solo part on one occasion and, before that, W.H. ‘Billy’ Reed played the solo part. Both times the composer provided the piano accompaniment and the two performances took place a couple of days either side of the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia première.

So, Gloucester had every right to mark these centenaries and, in a further piece of adroit planning, the concert programme was completed by a work of Vaughan Williams’ great friend, Holst. The concert was surely designed as one of the major events of the 2010 Festival and the emotional pull of hearing RVW’s masterpiece in the very building where it had first come to life was strong. As soloist in the Elgar the Festival engaged Philippe Graffin, who had already made a very good recording of the concerto in 2005 (review). The Philharmonia, which has been in fine form so far during the festival, was on hand once again and a guest conductor of international repute was on the podium.

Some readers may be already sensing that a “but” is imminent – and they are right. After all that build up, and with every seat sold long ago, the “but” proved to be the choice of conductor.

Sir Roger Norrington has built a long career in large part on his reputation as something of a musical iconoclast; in that he challenges the preconceptions of musicians and audiences alike by trying to adhere to the performance practices of the time in which the music he is conducting was written. For several years now he has been Chief Conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, which plays on modern instruments but wherever possible he encourages that orchestra not to play their instruments in a modern way but to have regard to period style. In a programme note he explained that in 1910 British orchestras would not have employed vibrato though soloists, including Fritz Kreisler, were beginning to use the technique. So he announced his intention to get the Philharmonia to play in this concert, eschewing vibrato and instead producing what he calls ‘pure tone’.

His note contained a passage that I think is worth quoting for it turned out to be very revealing in two respects. “[The Philharmonia Orchestra] in fact make the most beautiful sound when I ask them to play with pure tone, but they still find it a bit of an imposition! I totally understand their point of view; it takes time and custom to appreciate the beauties of the old tradition, and to enjoy the sensation of playing with this innocent and honest sound…..With my own Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, after a couple of years of open minded experiment and experience, the style became second nature.” The italics are mine but those italicised passages go to the heart of it, I think. Sir Roger admits that it takes time for players to become accustomed to, and comfortable with, such a radically different style of playing and rehearsal time for this concert will have been limited. I also think it’s quite one thing for an orchestra to develop a way of playing for a regular conductor over time : it’s quite another thing to expect even seasoned professionals to adapt to radical change when a guest conductor drops in for a single concert. So I exempt the Philharmonia from any criticism: they were playing to orders, which they clearly did their very best to follow.

So the audience at this concert were faced with something of a musical experiment. All well and good, perhaps; we all need to be challenged from time to time. Unfortunately, the experiments in sound were coupled with very unsatisfactory interpretation from the podium.

Before discussing the performances it’s worth just mentioning the orchestral layout, which was not as many modern conductors seat the orchestra. Again, Norrington may well have been following early twentieth-century practice. The violins were split to left and right of the conductor, which I wholeheartedly applaud. The celli were in front of the conductor’s rostrum and to his left – on the left of the first violins – and the violas were between the celli and the second violins. The double basses were ranged in a single row across the back of the orchestral space, behind the woodwind, to give a solid foundation to the orchestral sound. Though this isn’t a layout favoured by many modern conductors it seemed to me to be entirely logical and it worked well.

The Holst piece, though entertaining enough, is not of the same stature as the other two pieces on the programme. The first of the four movements was sturdy enough although here, and elsewhere, ensemble was not always as crisp as the orchestra had been achieving earlier in the week. Norrington conducted without a baton and his beat often seemed to me, from my seat five rows back, to be imprecise and, in slower music, somewhat lackadaisical. This was in sharp contrast to the incisive clarity of the beat and gestures of Jac van Steen a couple of nights before. There were pluses and minuses in the innocent little second movement. On the positive side the left-right division of the fiddles paid off handsomely. On the debit side, however, the leader’s short solo sounded somewhat strained without any vibrato to give it life and, indeed, the string playing as a whole sounded muted. The third movement was good in parts. The more vigorous stretches of music came off reasonably well but in the slower sections the solos for the leader and principal viola sounded inhibited and in general the orchestral tone was rather acidic. As I say, I do not blame the players for this. The finale went well enough but the ‘Greensleeves’ countermelody lacked the requisite warmth: the tune didn’t sing, though the celli did their very best. Overall, I felt that the performance seemed constrained and I got the distinct impression that the players were having to restrain their natural instincts in order to adapt to the conductor’s “old - fangled ideas”. The lack of any brilliance to the sound was a distinct handicap. It may be my imagination but the facial expressions of the players didn’t seem to convey much enjoyment.

There were interesting aspects in the performance of Vaughan Williams’s great masterpiece. To my surprise I felt that the ‘pure tone’ worked quite well when Tallis’s tune was heard for the first time. Norrington also ensured that the three separate string choirs were properly differentiated. The solo quartet played as well as the prohibition of vibrato would allow but it was in their solo lines that I particularly missed the warming effect of vibrato. On the debit side, however, Norrington’s pacing of the music was unsatisfactory. The basic pulse was just too brisk and the music was never really allowed to breathe or expand naturally. His treatment of the main climax was quite horrid. The music was pushed forward at an extreme pace – perhaps in a misguided attempt to impart urgency. If so, Norrington betrayed a fundamental failure to understand the music. There’s passion a-plenty in the music but RVW has written it all in and it needs no egregious rushing of fences by the conductor. As it was the climax sounded harsh and fierce, totally at odds with Vaughan Williams’s intentions. In the last analysis far too much of the timelessness and poetry was stripped away for this performance to be counted a success. In his biography of RVW, Simon Heffer has written, very rightly, of the “overall celestial effect” of the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia. I’m afraid there wasn’t much evidence of that on this occasion.

In the Elgar concerto I found that the lack of orchestral vibrato was not as much of an issue as had been the case in the first half. Perhaps my ears had become attuned. I rather think, however, that it was more the case that the scoring of the Elgar work is richer and fuller, whereas the sparer scoring of the Vaughan Williams and the Holst had accentuated the bareness of the sound. I was interested to observe that Sir Roger used a baton for the outer movements of the concerto. Ensemble seemed tighter in these movements: perhaps there’s a lesson there? I liked Philippe Graffin’s tone, especially the richness on the lower strings of his instrument – he, of course, was allowed to use vibrato. However, I wonder whose interpretation of the concerto we heard. I’ll refer back to Graffin’s recording in a moment but here it seemed to me that there was a great deal of haste about the first movement with all too few moments of repose or reflection. Several passages sounded uncomfortably rushed and the closing pages were pressed so hard that I wondered momentarily if the performance would come off the rails. Famously, Elgar wrote that in this concerto he’d enshrined the spirit of someone, a lady, whom he declined to name. Well, this first movement, if it depicted anyone, depicted a lady whose basic disposition was very lively indeed!

The slow movement also was taken at a flowing tempo, probably a little faster than I can recall hearing it before. Much of the movement came off well and Graffin offered much soulful playing, with an appropriate touch of ardour at times. However, I couldn’t help feeling that the music wasn’t given quite enough space at several key junctures and the ending, though graced by some refined playing both from Graffin and from the orchestra – apart from a very minor bassoon fluff - missed some of the poetry. The finale was the most successful of the three movements. The basic pulse adopted by Norrington was a quick one but not extreme. Graffin threw off the demanding virtuoso passages with great skill and he gave a fine account of the long and highly original cadenza. So there was a good deal to admire overall in this performance of the concerto but, nonetheless, I’m afraid it didn’t quite click for me.

When I got home I took down from my shelves Graffin’s CD of the concerto. Within a few minutes of listening it was clear that the CD was in a different league. The orchestral accompaniment was laid out with finesse and subtlety and the countless nuances in Elgar’s score were properly realised. Graffin himself seemed to have much more time to make his expressive points. In short everything seemed just right. Of course, one must acknowledge that the CD was made under studio conditions and without the adrenalin rush of concert performance. However, I think the key difference lay in the identity of the conductor on the CD: the late and much lamented Vernon Handley. For his recording Graffin had the benefit of working with a conductor who understood Elgar’s music inside out whereas, I’m sorry to say, he was not working with such a conductor at this concert.

I left the cathedral with a sense of great disappointment at an opportunity missed. On paper the programme was hugely enticing and the soloist was a young virtuoso who has proved on CD that he can give a first rate account of one of the greatest of all violin concertos. Unfortunately, it seemed to me that Sir Roger Norrington simply didn’t understand the music he was conducting. He displayed insufficient feeling for it or emotional attachment and, unworthy though it may be, I was left with the suspicion that the sound the orchestra made, rather than the music itself, was top of his agenda. The tragedy was that I’m pretty sure that any one of the three resident festival conductors could have made a better job of the programme simply on account of greater understanding of, and empathy with, the music

At the end of the first half I jotted down a thought in my notebook. Why didn’t composers and conductors resist the spread of vibrato among orchestral payers in the first decades of the last century? Could it have been that they recognised an improvement when they heard it?

John Quinn

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