This programme of British music included John Ireland’s once-regularly-performed Piano Concerto, and opened with the Overture from Vaughan Williams’s music for The Wasps, written in 1909 for a production of Aristophanes’s play. It burst into life with playing of vigour and rhythmic tautness, horn, violin and clarinet solos later adding much refinement to expansive passages. But wit was in short supply and, despite Barry Wordsworth’s efficiency, outer sections inclined to be sedate rather than jaunty.
Mark Bebbington is closely associated with John Ireland’s piano music, and in the Concerto (completed in 1930 for Helen Perkin) he made clear an assured technique, and a directness of expression, although the Steinway delivered an unyielding, sometimes harsh tone. Bravura elements in the first movement came to the fore and the dancing secondary tune (somewhat overused by Ireland) lost some of its playfulness. With tempos on the broad side greater inner life was needed to carry the sweep of the lyrical invention, although the heartfelt slow movement was not without poetry and its warmth and wistfulness were well-served. In the Gershwin-flavoured Finale Bebbington and the RPO responded keenly to jazzy brilliance and dreamy insouciance. Some of the latter found its ways into Bebbington’s encore – ‘The Island Spell’, the first of Ireland’s Decorations.
The evening’s most effective and gratifying contributions arrived in Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, Duncan Riddell an outstandingly eloquent soloist. Sweet-toned at the top and with rich-hued middle and lower registers, his violin stilled Cadogan Hall for magical evocation, his RPO colleagues sensitive and perfectly balanced.
By contrast, Enigma Variations drew variable responses so that some of Elgar’s portraits stood out more vividly than others. ‘Nimrod’ never quite found that special aura that brings a lump to the throat, while ‘Dorabella’ sported a delightful viola solo and, elsewhere, there was poignancy from Jonathan Ayling’s cello and much expressivity from Katherine Lacy’s clarinet.