David Porcelijn Steps In

In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.5 in D

David Theodore (oboe)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Porcelijn

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 23 April, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

David Porcelijn deputised for an indisposed Vernon Handley, but left the programme unchanged. Elgar and Vaughan Williams are, of course, Handley specialities.

The first item was chosen by audience ballot. Elgar’s Concert Overture had been picked, which was just as well since David Porcelijn, in a spoken introduction, confessed not to know Bax’s Tintagel – another Handley favourite – which was the other choice. In the event, after a slightly uncertain start, ensemble-wise, Porcelijn steered a level-headed course through one of Elgar’s most opulent scores. The refulgence of Richard Strauss’s scoring finds a distinct echo in Elgar’s tone poem (in effect), which was inspired by a visit to Italy in 1903. But Porcelijn didn’t allow the sonority to become bloated; indeed, at times, this was a lean reading, in spite of some gloriously baying horns. The quieter episodes were well tended, with the central passage for solo viola (which might have been less reticent), supported by harps, sounding more than ever like a reminiscence from Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. The vigour and swagger of Elgar’s music came through and there was plenty of ebullience in the final peroration.

Richard Strauss’s final works invariably have a tender, rather nostalgic flavour too them. The Oboe Concerto has a pared-down quality, with modest instrumentation and a leaning to the neo-classical, perhaps reflecting Strauss’s love of the 18th-century, and the music of Lully in particular. In truth, however, the musical material is not consistently of the highest order of which Strauss was capable – even at this stage of his life. The concerto was completed towards the end of 1945. Strauss died four years later.

Whilst it would be impertinent to suggest that there is mere ‘note-spinning’, the melodic writing is not of the freshest, and, here, there was one or two awkward transitions, which need careful handling if the structure is not to become fragmented. This was something of a careful performance. The strings at the beginning seemed hesitant, and mellifluously as LPO Principal David Theodore spun his often-long lines (with most impressive breath control), his tone was perhaps too monochrome. The gentle Andante second movement flowed very pleasantly, with some well-placed touches in the accompaniment. The finale had a light sparkle, and there was some effective blending of soloist and orchestral winds toward the end. Overall, though, more rehearsal would have been beneficial.

Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony must have been perceived as a tranquil oasis in the midst of wartime chaos when it was first performed at a Prom in 1943. Indeed, much of the music is serene and, like Strauss, a degree nostalgic – perhaps nostalgic for an England which never really was. David Porcelijn’s interpretation was interesting in that one felt an ‘edge’ to the atmosphere from time to time. No misty, mystical opening here, but a clear enunciation of the thematic ideas which pervade the first movement.

Unfortunately, a lot of the introduction was far too loud. There is no marking above ‘piano’ until well into the movement. One would not have known this from this performance. But there was also a freshness that was quite bracing. Indeed, throughout the symphony, Porcelijn avoided the temptation to wallow. The second movement – specifically headed ‘Scherzo’ – was in many ways the most successful, with piquant wind and brass interjections, and a good flowing tempo which conveyed a degree of restlessness. One’s impression was that this music was less amiable than usual. The ensemble was razor-sharp here – as it needs to be. The Romanza third movement was again free of over-indulgence, though the strings were too loud at times – especially in their initial statement of the main theme, which the cor anglais had previously delivered with admirable expression and phrasing. It built to a strong – though not overwhelming – climax, which was marred by the timpani entering a bar too soon. (There were one or two other surprising infelicities of ensemble.)

The finale moved along at commendable speed, not without forcefulness where appropriate, and the symphony concluded not with warm consolation, but with a slightly questing feeling. This was an interesting rendition, perhaps slightly ‘cooler’ than we are accustomed to.

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