BBC Symphony Orchestra at Fairfield Halls – John Wilson conducts Vaughan Williams, Finzi & Elgar with Michael Collins & Catherine Wyn-Rogers

Vaughan Williams
The Wasps – Overture
Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, Op.31
The Music Makers, Op.69

Michael Collins (clarinet)

Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 9 November, 2012
Venue: The Concert Hall, Fairfield Halls, Croydon

John Wilson. Photograph: BBCMarking the 50th-anniversary of the opening of Fairfield Halls in November 1962 (which took place during the same week The Beatles first entered the UK pop charts and a fortnight after President Kennedy had averted World War Three), this British programme concluded a mini-festival by various orchestras (the London Mozart Players and the Royal Philharmonic preceded the BBC Symphony) commemorating the half-century. It was the BBCSO, under Sir Malcolm Sargent, with Yehudi Menuhin as soloist in Max Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto, who inaugurated the Hall, and this programme echoed in part something of the mood which launched this acoustically excellent venue (that opening concert, attended by your correspondent, had Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony either side of the Bruch. That certain peripheral standards have changed over the years was clear from a number of factors, but the essence of concert-giving and of concert-going manifestly remains the same today – it comes down to the quality of the music and the music-making.

I don’t recall there being 29 microphones in attendance in 1962, but there were on this occasion – with the sight of them, threaded throughout the somewhat under-strength BBCSO (founded upon just six double basses), leaving the audience in no doubt that ‘this concert is being recorded’. Before the programme began, BBC Radio 3 (another post-1962 concept, not entirely above reproach, replacing the lamented Third Programme) announcer Petroc Trelawny introduced the first half from the stage in the (now) customary chatty BBC classical music manner, more ‘democratic’ than informative (Sargent’s knighthood removed – will they do the same when Roger Wright gets his?) and expressing biased opinions about the music, performers and performance, before the main reason for us being there got under way with a crisp and effective account of The Wasps Overture, well enough played but none too well balanced, the tempos not so finely integrated as they need to be (the performance by the RPO under Paul Daniel, which I heard in Cadogan Hall recently, was better all round, and the composer’s recording shows how it should go). Perhaps, with all those microphones, such matters can be adjusted before the concert is broadcast.

Michael CollinsScene-shifting was necessary for Michael Collins in Gerald Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto, and it was clear from the opening pages that much more rehearsal had been afforded this work. In sum, this was a superb performance of a genuine masterpiece – one of the greatest British concertos ever written for any instrument, a work flawless in its inspiration, compositional mastery and depth of expression. This was a performance of high musicianship from Collins with John Wilson an alert and deeply sympathetic partner. The BBCSO strings were outstanding.

Elgar’s The Music Makers is another work that (like the Finzi) was virtually unknown 50 years ago, but is now accepted as a significant part of the composer’s choral canon (setting words by Arthur O’Shaughnessy). When the first recording appeared, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, the self-borrowings (or so it seemed) in the piece formed the main talking-point. Today, with several recordings at our command, with concert performances no longer the rarity they once were, we can appreciate the score better. This was a splendid performance, and if one initially wished for slightly better clarity with regard to enunciation from the 105 singers in the BBC Symphony Chorus, this soon improved; in this work, Wilson truly came into his own. Those ‘self-borrowings’ (principally from Enigma Variations – a nice connection with that initial programme) no longer cause surprise, for such was Wilson’s command that one could well believe that the main Enigma four-note idea came spontaneously to Elgar, and then – realising what had happened, quite unbidden – he followed his muse, creating a notable and genuine score in the process, fully able to stand alone within his output.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Photograph: Gerald PlaceThe orchestral and choral writing are masterly, wonderfully integrated, and the dramatic use of two extended sections with contralto (in this case, mezzo-soprano) soloist give an added perspective, made more expressive when the soloist combines with the chorus. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was really fine, and the result was a memorable performance indeed. She brought dignity, expressive control, a consistent line and deep musical intelligence to her part, being at one with the conductor in every respect.

Croydon’s Fairfield Halls is a splendid space with a proud history – apart from Menuhin, it has hosted Rubinstein, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Bernstein, Maazel, Boulez, and the Vienna Philharmonic – to name but a handful of the great musicians who have appeared here. According to Trelawny’s script, this is an “iconic” building – perhaps, in time, that must-use buzz-word will have dropped from common usage: its over-use today devalues it, and what on earth, in this instance, does it mean?

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