This was a meeting of auspicious events: the return of a great musician to a cherished orchestra and the passing of a baton celebrating excellence in British music. Maxim Vengerov, capping a year of re-engagement with concert-performance with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, would on any other day have outshone anyone in the room, but on this occasion it was the attendance of HM, presenting The Queen’s Medal for Music, that stole the headlines.
Principal LSO trombonist Dudley Bright’s Waltonesque Entry Fanfare announced The Queen’s arrival; the full welcome came from Master of the Queen’s Music, Peter Maxwell Davies, which packed the stage with musicians, both aspiring and professional. The LSO was joined by young local players. Their combined forces rose to a tremendous volume in Maxwell Davies’s steadily expanding introduction. It’s by no means an uncomplicated greeting, beginning with a knotty harmonic conflict that sends the music upwards, as though trying to throw off its awkward shackles. Troubling, too, is the ambiguous militarism injected by two side drums, but its less confrontational passages hint at an inclusivity normally shunned by the shock-and-awe tactics of your average brassy fanfare.
There followed the big honeyed tone of Maxim Vengerov, returning to an orchestra that he once appeared with regularly. His is a sound that harks back to the great players of earlier decades, particularly David Oistrakh and Jascha Heifetz. Like the latter, Vengerov’s view of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was, on this occasion, over-paced and rather impatient. That might have had something to do with the impression that not everything was working: some bad slips in the first movement – particularly in the cadenza – established the wrong kind of tension. Neither did Vengerov seem at ease with the LSO, pushing mercilessly on at the expense of Robin Ticciati’s carefully crafted accompaniment. The hushed Canzonetta fared better (though by following Tchaikovsky’s instruction to use a mute, Vengerov justified the decision of so many soloists to do without) and he only hit his stride deep into the rapid finale. As an encore Vengerov offered the Adagio of Bach’s G minor Sonata, but the performance of the concerto can’t have been the return Vengerov would have hoped for.
Next, a happier ceremony, when the Queen awarded the eponymous Medal for Music to the National Youth Orchestra, a notable training ground for so many professional musicians. Did I detect a hint of political motivation in Peter Maxwell Davies’s citation when mentioning the current cuts to arts in education? It certainly is a timely award. A select few members of the NYO accepted the medal from HM before joining the LSO for an outstanding performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Ticciati (replacing Colin Davis) shaped the ‘Theme’ and subsequent portraits of Elgar’s friends with tremendous feeling, but the real delights arose from the playing of the orchestra, which moved as one through the extreme dynamic fluctuations of ‘Troyte’ and flowed effortlessly through ‘Nimrod’. There were also beautifully turned cameos from principal viola Edward Vanderspar and Rebecca Guilliver on cello; and, from Andrew Marriner, some of the most remarkable whispered clarinet-playing I have ever heard.