Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
The Planets – Suite for large orchestra, Op.32
Natalie Clein (cello)
Ladies of Philharmonia Voices
Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Tuesday, June 05, 2012
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As HM the Queen celebrated – up the road at Buckingham Palace – sixty years on the throne, the Philharmonia Orchestra's matinee Jubilee concert reminded that these six decades haven’t seen the most fruitful of royal engagements with music. Tellingly, the only really 'royal' piece was Walton's Crown Imperial, composed for the ill-fated coronation of Edward VIII and played instead at the ceremonies of George VI and then Elizabeth II. Edward Gardner's brisk tempo and the Philharmonia's crisp ensemble brought to mind the aerial action of the Walton-scored film The First of the Few – Spitfire fly-pasts and dogfights – rather than the pomp of a state occasion; but as a view of the piece itself, it was as thrilling and stirring as you could hope for. But, why not play Walton's Orb and Sceptre, specifically written for the coronation of the current monarch?
Walton's march, though, proved to be something of an odd contrast with the anguish of Elgar's Cello Concerto. Natalie Clein’s elegant and clean performance began well by replacing the doom-laden trudge that sometimes overwhelms the opening movement with a noble and rhythmically-conscious tread, but her small sound and consequent lack of projection led to the question of her suitability for the work. Stylish portamento was appealing in isolation but generally seemed to be a distraction from the music’s intensity and purpose. She could be forgiven her unsettled state in the rapid second movement, which had begun with her instrument slipping forward abruptly to her obvious surprise. The Adagio, though, suffered from a fundamental lack of concern for line and was robbed of its in-a-single-breath arc and flow. Clein brought more distinction to the clipped vehemence of the finale – helped in the tender recollections of earlier themes by some exquisitely quiet playing from the orchestra – but, for all her experience in this concerto, she seemed some way off presenting a convincingly unified and involving view of it.
Holst’s The Planets also seemed connected to the concert’s theme by nationality alone, but, with a performance as good as this, it barely mattered. ‘Mars’ roared with brutal, vengeful anger. ‘Venus’ proved soothing balm, while ‘Mercury’ skipped and danced appropriately and the jovial swagger of Jupiter was done full justice to. ‘Saturn’ was the highlight of the set. Gardner’s pacing in the drawn-out crescendo at the centre of the movement was deliberate and hypnotic; it’s climax shattering and bleak. The Philharmonia also gave Gardner the most distant of pianissimos and some wonderfully balanced glittering textures in the relief of the coda. ‘Uranus’ found the brass punching Holst's four-note motif with tremendous body of sound, characterising this magician as a fierce presence. In the remarkable conclusion to the set, ‘Neptune’, the offstage women’s choir suggesting eternity in their retreat into silence found the Philharmonia Voices a little too distantly placed, but Gardner had earned his moment of held and rapt silence once all had faded. Orchestra and conductor then brought the programme back to the theme of the day with Elgar’s First Pomp and Circumstance March.