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Elgar, Haydn, Vaughan Williams: Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder (conductor); Westmorland Hall, Kendal, Cumbria, 12.2.2011 (MC)


Elgar: Cockaigne, Op.40 ‘In London Town

Haydn: Symphony No.104 in D major, ‘London

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 2 ‘A London Symphony’


Sir Mark Elder’s passion for English music does not suit every music writer. Some of the remarks made about Sir Mark’s enthusiasm for Elgar’s oratorios particularly The Kingdom have left a sour aftertaste. We are often told how well the music of say Britten and Elgar travels. But I’m not convinced that English music is played internationally as often as we might imagine. Conductor Vasily Petrenko recently told me when he took Elgar’s Cockaigne to a top American orchestra they had never played it before. I recall soloist Janine Jansen saying when she played the Britten Violin Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic just over a year ago the orchestra hadn’t performed it for fifty years. So thank goodness for genuine champions such as Sir Mark who included two English scores on the programme to the delight of a packed Kendal audience.


It now seems obligatory for every concert programme to contain a theme. For this Hallé visit to Kendal the theme was conspicuous as all three works contained ‘London’ in their title. Introducing the concert in his highly enthusiastic, erudite manner Sir Mark certainly stoked up the anticipation.


The exhilarating curtain raiser was Elgar’s concert overture CockaigneIn London Town’. There seemed an extra degree of ardency in Sir Mark’s barnstorming rendition. At one point the baton flew out of his hand like a projectile. Without wishing to infer that Sir Mark on the podium guarantees that the Hallé give that extra ten percent, his presence noticeably lifts and inspires them to even greater heights. In spite of knowing this music backwards the Hallé played this vividly stirring fifteen minute sequence of portraits of Edwardian London as if their life depended on it.


Composed in London during Haydn’s second visit to England the Symphony No.104 in D major, ‘London’ comes from the set of twelve symphonies that are known as the ‘Salomon’ or ‘London symphonies’. A great success at its 1795 première this is the last symphony that Haydn wrote. Under Sir Mark the Hallé sounded like big-band Haydn which clearly suited the score. I loved the bitter-sweet opening movement which I doubt has ever been played with as much zeal. Like a depiction of an English stately home the Andante with its appealing main theme was elegant and beautifully shaped. In the sinewy music of the Minuet the woodwind were given several if only brief opportunities to shine. Whatever its origins, the rustic opening theme of the engaging closing movement could have come out of his pupil Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. I was struck by the forward momentum from Sir Mark’s sure pulse and sense of line. The ebullient Finale ensured a rousing conclusion.

The centrepiece of the concert was Vaughan Williams’s much revised Symphony No.2A London Symphony’. After the interval in his own inimitable way Sir Mark gave a passionate explanation of the Vaughan Williams symphony engendering a real expectancy. I did wonder how many of the audience were aware that the generally performed version we were to hear has some twenty minutes of music cut from the original 1913 score.


Sir Mark proved to be an inspirational guide in the London Symphony and the Hallé responded to his direction with enthusiasm and assurance. This was a gloriously convincing depiction of Vaughan Williams’s pulsating and multi-faceted metropolis. The predominant images were of a post Edwardian London cloaked in fog and shrouded in river mist in the manner of the work of French impressionists Claude Monet and the Manchester scenes of Adolphe Valette. Said to evoke Bloomsbury Square the Lento always suggests to me a bleak Fen country on a damp, grey and misty, autumn morning. Warmly endearing, the solos from the cor anglais and viola were played with exceptional control. The expressive playing in the Scherzo mirrored the nocturnal sights, sounds and colours of heady London scenes from the perspective of Westminster Bridge and The Strand. Containing music of great nobility and substance the Finale opens with a plaintive cry of anguish. The power and intensity of the orchestral climaxes were remarkable. Some of the great movie composers of Hollywood epics must surely have heard this dramatic music. After the ‘Westminster chimes’ the Epilogue veiled in fog and river mist revealed mystery and ambiguity before fading away to nothing. Sir Mark and the Hallé seemed buoyed by the full house and enthusiastic audience and delivered a triumphant performance of this wonderful music.


Michael Cookson


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