In the programme-book introducing this concert marking the 150th-anniversary of the birth of Frederick Delius, the chairman of the Philharmonia Orchestra noted that the composer is much-loved but underperformed composer. The fact that excellent readings of two of his best works from his leading interpreters received a lukewarm reception is ample evidence that maybe there is still something about this quirky creator which audiences still can't quite warm to.
Andrew Davis's long acquaintance with Delius was evident in his grip of the architecture of Brigg Fair with each of the variations on the Lincolnshire folksong clearly delineated and a coda which opened up magnificently. From the poetic fluttering of flute and clarinet, beautifully caught by Jonathan Snowden and Barnaby Robson, this was a superbly balanced and delicately shaded account.
The Cello Concerto (1921) may be something of an acquired taste. It may not be instantly appealing to the unfamiliar ear, containing no ‘obvious’ melodies within its single movement structure (lasting just over 20 minutes). Instead the emphasis is on mood and feeling, a sense of wistfulness and resignation. The continuous stream of consciousness reveals itself subtly and without fanfare – exactly what Julian Lloyd Webber conveyed and with no lack of feeling, Davis the perfect partner, cushioning the long, flowing cello line on a soft bed of supple strings and delicate woodwinds.
Opening the concert there was an understated performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams's popular The Lark Ascending. Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (the Philharmonia's leader) was a tasteful soloist, playing with sweet tone but never straying into sentimentality, Davis and the Philharmonia a model of support and discretion. Unfortunately all this good work was marred by an audience coughing and spluttering throughout.
To close this afternoon concert, Enigma Variations proved a slight disappointment. Andrew Davis has an enviable pedigree with Elgar, but this was at times an uninvolving and distant account. The more rumbustious portraits had verve and sparkle, but some of the intimate ones seemed listless. ‘Nimrod’, however, was extremely fine, noble and without a hint of bombast – and all the more moving for being so. Momentum was lost, though, after an unusually long pause at the end of it, the performance never quite recovering, the closing ‘E.D.U’ (Elgar’s musical self-portrait) – slower-paced than usual if with the optional organ part – lacking the cumulative impact of all that had gone before.