Strings and harp (two to the part on this occasion) opened the evening, Vaughan Williams’s take on the folksong ‘Dives and Lazarus’, composed for the 1939 World’s Fair, in New York, the city’s Philharmonic conducted by the newly knighted Adrian Boult in Carnegie Hall, part of an English invasion, for the rest of the programme was Arthur Bliss’s Piano Concerto, with Solomon, and Arnold Bax’s Seventh Symphony. Present-day knight Mark Elder ensured that Vaughan Williams’s meditative Variants had soul and was sounded luxuriously, quite beautifully so, with eloquent refrains, a finely calibrated increase of intensity (with reminders of the thirty-years-earlier Tallis Fantasia) and lovely solos from Carmine Lauri (violin) and Alastair Blayden (cello).
The very instruments that Brahms composed his Double Concerto for, his final orchestral work, partly written as an olive-branch to Joseph Joachim – they had become estranged – although it is the cellist who is first in the limelight. LSO principals Roman Simovic and Tim Hugh impressed immediately, communing and interactive, Hugh rich-toned and concentrated, Simovic sweetly expressive and gleaming in timbre, both individual yet complementary, folding into a robust and keen accompaniment. With a slow movement that was a soulful ‘song without words’, blest with captivating woodwinds, and a Finale both ardent and noble, this account made and leaves a big impression.
The soloists arrived at an encore rather quickly – the danger being that the Brahms might too easily be brushed aside, yet its excellence justified an extra. It was Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia on a Theme by Handel, of which Heifetz and Piatigorsky made a celebrated recording. Norwegian Halvorsen (1864-1935), also a violinist, throws out many challenges, ably met by Simovic and Hugh, continuing their top-flight virtuosity and discerning musicianship.
Following the interval, a generally stellar voyage of The Planets (another Boult birth), Tim Hugh now leading his section. ‘Mars’ was ominous, col legno effects to the fore, the music assaultive, relentless, the coda hammered out; I wish I could name the chap on the euphonium, but he wasn’t named. The wafts of cool air that inform ‘Venus’ were now welcome, a paradise of a planet, and the ‘Winged Messenger’ that is ‘Venus’ was given with bounce, clarity and precision, no mean feat given Elder’s spirited tempo (antiphonal violins darting in both directions across his podium); by the way, Elder is now marking the days to his Seventieth Birthday, the new sixty, on June 2. Whether ‘Jupiter’ was jolly enough is a moot point, although it was certainly exuberant, and the central hymnal was spacious and stirring, although the movement was signed-off as over-brassy and with thumping timpani (two players), as warlike as ‘Mars’.
The standout was ‘Saturn, the bringer of old age’, desolate and chilling in the opening measures (looking ahead to a later Holst masterpiece, Egdon Heath), establishing a slow if implacable Grim Reaper tread and then unflinching come the tolling-bell climax, following which some consolation was offered by chiming harps, hair-pinning horns and serene strings. Elder went straight into ‘Uranus’ and then into ‘Neptune’, and by so doing side-stepped the disruptive previous clapping. ‘Uranus’ galumphed without being quite malevolent enough (and the organ glissando went for very little and was late finishing), while ‘Neptune’ was suitably frosty and eerie, and from a hole in the far wall the Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus were ideal in their ethereal perspective, Siren-esque in effect, their receding to nothingness perfectly judged, leaving a spellbinding silence that was respected until Sir Mark indicated that the performance was finished.