Saturday, November 17, 2012 St Barnabas Church, Ealing, London W5
Reviewed by Edward Clark
John Gibbons and the Ealing Symphony Orchestra are building a notable reputation for including premiere performances and lots of contemporary works in their programmes. At this exceptional concert we heard two recent works full of life, vitality and real feeling.
Edward Gregson’s sparkling Blazon (1992) begins and ends with heraldic fanfares that frame a middle section reminiscent of sounds found in Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage. Blazon contains considerable virtuosic passages for, not least making demands on three trumpets, spread around the arena for spatial effect. A sizeable array of percussion is also used together with piano and harp. The ESO players acquitted themselves admirably.
More reserved sonorities were needed for Christopher Wright’s moving and eloquent Violin Concerto (2010), written in memory of his wife, herself a violinist. Perhaps an unwitting role-model is Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funèbre (1939/59). Wright’s three-movement design – slow-fast-slow – mirrors William Walton’s Violin Concerto but, in the finale, he adds another dimension, a tenor singing six lines of Christina Rossetti’s poem Echo (“Come to me in the silence of the night”). This interjection, here the firm and clear voice of Michael Solomon-Williams, allows the violin soloist to take an almost obbligato role before ending alone. Fenella Humphreys has already recorded this work and was entirely into the work’s reflection and sadness, and the more technically demanding middle movement was dispatched with effortless style and grace. Wright’s idiom is powerfully connected to the English heritage of George Butterworth, Vaughan Williams, Walton and Britten, and conjures up his own sense of artistic feeling from such a powerful seed as his profound loss. Humphreys was ably supported by Gibbons and his sensitive players for her to project the various moods.
Elgar’s Second Symphony (1910) also projects a sense of disquiet and loss that caused consternation at the time of its premiere, a time of British national pride in its Empire, of affluence and confidence. The prophecy of war and national destitution contained in this most magical score was not welcome even when it became apparent a few years later. By not adopting the sometimes excitable tempos of other conductors, Gibbons was able to stress the symphonic credentials that Elgar is often accused of lacking in music that can easily ramble and seem disjointed. The very opening captured the epic sweep that announces a statement of serious intent. This performance allowed the music to speak for itself; unforced, eloquent and organic in its desire for unity of purpose. The gravitas of the elegiac slow movement offered much reflection of loss beyond that for King Edward VII. The scherzo was made a bigger movement than usual by not being rushed and unearthed often-obscured details. The glorious finale avoided triumphalism and ended with a roar before falling into peace and tranquillity.