An evening of first-class music-making, beginning with Elgar’s In the South, written and orchestrated at lightning speed in 1904. From star-burst opening to thunderous close it was given a blistering account under Edward Gardner’s superb focus, the Philharmonia Orchestra bringing to this evocation of Italy a cinematic brilliance. Passion and tenderness, and spontaneity and intimacy, were seamlessly woven into the music’s fabric, Gardner seized by an unstoppable energy – leaping, swaying or thrusting on the podium, as if Elgar’s fevered imagination was being directly transmitted to him. Yukiko Ogura (viola) with strings and harp brought melting warmth to the ‘Canto popolare’ section and an uplifting peroration closed this bracing performance.
Joseph Phibbs’s Clarinet Concerto is scored for medium-sized orchestra and is in four movements, its character largely shaped by the expressive and technical range of Mark van de Wiel for whom Phibbs has written a technically challenging work but one that makes few demands on listeners. From the start its modernity and skill are worn lightly; atmospheric string clusters morph to pulsing rhythms to support an urban, blues-inspired lyricism all generated from the clarinet’s opening theme. The tonal palette expands in the faster, unsettled, second movement where Eastern European influences conjure a blend of Bartók and John Adams. An elegiac section is followed by a return to the city soundscape and the Concerto ends with an assertive flourish to complete a rewarding piece. The Philharmonia was marvellously supportive to its colleague Mark van de Wiel who embraced the solo part with agility, eloquence and musical intelligence.
In Elgar’s First Symphony Gardner reconnected with the vitality and momentum of In the South, and brought off a brilliantly-paced account. No hint here of an Edwardian composer writing sepia-tinged music, but more an image of rambunctious virility, a creator pumped with adrenalin. From the outset of the ‘motto’ theme (more Andante than nobilmente) Gardner pressed forward, urging life into phases, drawing out detail, while ensuring the logical integration of component parts. The march of the Scherzo emerged from crisply articulated string-playing and with ferocious intensity, almost apocalyptic such was the vigour from Gardner’s heart-on-sleeve approach. There was a modicum of relaxation in the Adagio, its confessional spirit and Christian Stene’s mellifluous clarinet achingly beautiful in the closing pages. Forward impulse returned for the Finale in which robust, but never forceful, brass and timpani emerged along with a sparkling piccolo to colour a movement that crowned something magnificent.