A Concert of British Music

Elgar
Introduction and Allegro, for string quartet and string orchestra, Op.47
Hugh Wood
Piano Concerto
Walton
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor

Joanna MacGregor (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Michael Seal


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 March, 2007
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

As concerts of British music go, this was both a well-planned and absorbing one. Not the least of its attractions was a welcome revival, under the auspices of the BBC Radio 3/Royal Philharmonic Society “Encore” scheme, for the Piano Concerto by Hugh Wood, only its third live performance – completed in 1991 and first performed at that year’s Proms by Joanna MacGregor.

While Symphony remains Wood’s defining orchestral statement, his contribution to the concerto is a significant one. Unlike those for cello and violin, the one for piano more readily evokes Classical precedent through its three distinct movements; the composer’s highly personal take on serialism finding an appropriate context in the clear-cut formal conventions of a serious but far from earnest or over-wrought piece. A meeting of tradition and innovation such as MacGregor, never one content to pedal the standard repertoire, evidently relishes as much now as she at the time of the premiere.

With its skilful juxtaposition of incisive tuttis and more lyrical interplay of soloist and orchestra, the opening Vigoroso is a combative movement that responds well to MacGregor’s charisma. Nor did she underplay the emotional charge of the central Adagio, whose sequence of Variations on the standard ‘Sweet Lorraine’ places expressive emphasis on the theme’s climactic unveiling towards the close, though without detracting from the soulful nature of the movement overall. With its judicious combining of refrains and development, the finale restores the earlier momentum while ingeniously tying up thematic ‘loose ends’. MacGregor dispatched it with gusto, and Michael Seal’s attentiveness ensured that the music’s rhythmic impetus never faltered all the way to the wonderfully decisive closing chords.

So, a welcome and successful revival: timely, too, in the year of Wood’s 75th birthday – during which it is much to be hoped that MacGregor’s recording of the concerto will resurface (perhaps on her own SoundCircus label?), alongside new recordings to round out the composer’s still limited discography.

Having impressed when he took over the premiere of Richard Causton’s Between Two Waves of the Sea just over two years ago, Michael Seal (re-christened ‘Richard’ in the current Radio Times!) has since been appointed Associate Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and this concert marked his first full appearance in the orchestra’s subscription series. As a working violinist, he is clearly well placed to tackle Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, and this performance was notable for the ease of transition between its contrasting sections – as well as for its internal clarity. The fugue could have had even greater flair (antiphonal violins would have helped, though the clear separation of Firsts and Seconds was a plausible alternative), but the work’s presiding qualities of vigour and eloquence were never undersold.

Nor was this a run-of-the-mill account of Walton’s First Symphony. Its dynamic range could at times have been wider (as much a reason for the work’s impact as its harmonic dissonance or long-range tonal scheme), but there was no doubting Seal’s control of momentum over the emotional disruptions of the opening Allegro, or the way in which the movement’s thematic elements coalesce so powerfully during the reprise. If the scherzo lacked a final degree of malice, its tensile wit and cumulative charge were amply conveyed, and the Andante benefited from thoughtful pacing: neither rushed through as was once often the case, nor weighted down with solemnity as has been the more recent option.

The finale capped the reading in fine style – Seal shaping and layering the fugal passages so that the movement moved purposefully through to the entry of percussion (as signal a moment as it should be), then shaping the apotheosis so that its optimism avoided all trace of the portentous. With the orchestra unstinting in support, it rounded off both a notable performance and a memorable concert.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 22 March at 7 p.m.
  • BBC Radio 3
  • CBSO

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