Edward Elgar, Nigel Kennedy & Leonard Slatkin

Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61

Nigel Kennedy (violin)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 March, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Leonard Slatkin. Photograph: Steve J. ShermanThis was the first time that both the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and its Principal Guest Conductor Leonard Slatkin had appeared in the Royal Festival Hall since its doors re-opened last June after a lengthy refurbishment; they were greeted by a sold-out house. Just as the Philharmonia Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi managed in the first weeks, and with a similar orchestral layout, Slatkin and the RPO skilfully blended and projected the sound to splendid effect in what is a still-difficult-to-judge acoustic; here with eight double basses positioned at the back, left-ish, the instruments pointing into the auditorium, rather than across the platform, the basses offered real foundation – not always the case in the ‘new’ RFH – and brass rarely if ever blared or dominated. Details came through effortlessly and if the violins (properly antiphonal, as this music demands, and here gloriously distinct in this positioning) were a little thin-sounding at times, then this is how it was on the night.

It was a canny piece of programming that placed the symphony first – the great burst of energy that launches the work enough to sustain the work ‘as a whole’ and also the concerto right through to its resplendent conclusion; two of Elgar’s greatest and most musically and emotionally challenging works, completed in 1911 and 1910 respectively. Well, that was my theory – but it didn’t quite come off in that way.

Slatkin, a distinguished Elgarian, led an account of the symphony notable for convincing tempos, tempo-relationships, grand sweep and unaffected introspection; thoroughly fine. Seemingly unsettled, though, in the wrong way, was the elegiac slow movement, which needed greater expanse and quietude; but then the symphony ‘as a whole’ had been sabotaged by applause greeting the first movement and a ruinous hold-up when numerous latecomers were let in with the inevitable searching for seats. This clapping ‘thing’ continued throughout the evening, even when Slatkin had masterfully controlled a long silence after the symphony’s second movement. Thus, the violent eruptions of the scherzo suited my mood (!) and were suitably disturbing among much that was wistful, shadowy and gossamer. The opening to the finale can be a cliff-hanger tempo-wise; Slatkin rolled it along ideally and caught the later pomp well (if not necessarily the sear en route) – a final glimpse of the British Empire before the music fades, the RPO reserving a magical dynamic drop and real sensitivity for the final bars. But “peaceful”, to quote from the programme note? No, ‘resigned’ is the better word; Elgar was rarely at peace.

Nigel KennedyThe RPO played with commitment and focus and kept such dynamism going for the concerto. Beneath Nigel Kennedy’s irksome mannerisms (including floor-thumps with his right boot) there exists a fine musician; and Elgar’s Violin Concerto is very much a signature piece for him (he has two EMI recordings of it, the first with Vernon Handley, the second with Simon Rattle). Whilst he may not be the work’s most penetrating interpreter (although his use of portamento is both appropriate and seemingly ‘of the moment’), he certainly captures its fiery and rapt qualities and he can be bold and tender. The first movement was a triumph and the Andante deeply eloquent, even if it ended up as interminably slow. Come its close, the mood-crashing applause was the concert’s nadir.

With the finale, Kennedy went off the rails somewhat, pulling some passages around like a naughty schoolboy almost as if he was trying to catch Slatkin out. He failed. From such bathos, the cadenza (mysteriously ‘accompanied’ by guitar-like strings) returned us to the sublime, although the final bars were pushed through rather than opening out majestically.

Something of a curate’s egg, then, leading to further punching the air and other affectations. Such things detract from Kennedy’s undoubted ability (I await the world’s judgement on his cadenzas for a Mozart Violin Concerto, due from EMI on 14 April … I’m saying nothing except that Margaret Hodge might approve!), yet, while no encore was needed, he did offer us “a bit of Bach” (‘Preludio’ from the E major Partita) that had respect, daring and technical brilliance in equal measure.

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