British Classics – CBSO/John Wilson

Portsmouth Point
Summer Night on the River
Arthur Benjamin
Romantic Fantasy
Haydn Wood
London Landmarks – The Horse Guards, Whitehall
Rouge et Noir
The Mikado – Overture
Salut d’Amour
Pictures in the Fire
Scrub, Brothers, Scrub!
The Haunted Ballroom – Waltz
London Suite

Andrew Haveron (violin) & Lawrence Power (viola)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 April, 2011
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

John Wilson. Photograph: Wilson’s matinee concerts have become a regular as well as welcome part of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s seasons over recent years. This afternoon-offering was typical in combining extended pieces with lighter fare, relative obscurities along with evergreens in a varied and entertaining programme.

Breezing in with Walton’s Portsmouth Point, its rhythmic syncopation vividly pointed and bracing humour never undersold, the first half continued with Delius’s Summer Night on the River – the second of two pieces for small orchestra (here loosing little of its poise when played with a nearly full complement) which, though less familiar than the ‘First Cuckoo’, is the more distinctive and personal in expression; here exuding just the right degree of somnolence. After this, a rarity in the form of Arthur Benjamin’s Romantic Fantasy, written in 1938 and with unusual concertante pairing of violin and viola and for their playing in dialogue virtually throughout. Formally, an atmospheric ‘Nocturne’ (piano prominent in the opulent orchestral texture) leads directly into an alternately incisive and poetic ‘Scherzino’, which, in turn, segues into an (over-) extended ‘Sonata-finale’. As with his Symphony, Benjamin’s sense of thematic evolution is not so much lacking as under-realised, though this matters less when – as here – the music unfolds in relatively loose-limbed paragraphs. Certainly it can have had few, if any, finer performances than by Andrew Haveron and Lawrence Power, who projected the solo lines with mingled warmth and ardour.

The second half was a potpourri of ‘light’ miniatures such as have had a notable revival in recent years, and of which Wilson is an exponent second to none. ‘The Horse Guards, Whitehall’ is the last movement of Haydn Wood’s suite London Landmarks, and a vigorous depiction in whatever context, while Fred Hartley’s Rouge et Noir evokes the roulette-wheel in suitably suave terms. Sullivan’s Overture to his and Gilbert’s “The Mikado” might have been better placed right after the interval but this lively sequence of intended ‘hits’, while not one of the composer’s best (nor one of the handful that he himself assembled) benefitted from Wilson’s forthright manner. Elgar’s Salut d’Amour yielded its wistful charm in full, while Robert Farnon’s Pictures in the Fire exuded real emotional depth and was the highlight of this miscellany. Ken Warner’s Scrub, Brothers, Scrub! (a tribute to his fellow violinists) proved lively if unmemorable, but the ‘Waltz’ from Geoffrey Toye’s The Haunted Ballroom evinced a languor and understated passion that makes one keen to hear the whole ballet. Finally to Eric Coates’s London Suite, which – whether in the hectic ‘Covent Garden’, the dreamy meditation of ‘Westminster’, or the panache of the march evoking ‘Knightsbridge’ – encapsulates the capital in generously affirmative terms.

This last piece featured on the CBSO’s fine LP of Coates’s orchestral music with Reginald Kilbey conducting, still to be reissued in its entirety. As to the present, Wilson has recently been signed by EMI and it would be good were his plans to include the CBSO as, on the basis of this concert, theirs is a partnership made to last.

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