Hickox, Isserlis and the Philharmonia – 28th February

Cello Concerto
Symphony No.1

Steven Isserlis (cello)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 28 February, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Walton celebrations continue apace with another fine orchestral concert under the seemingly inexhaustible Richard Hickox. The Partita was commissioned by George Szell (one of Walton’s greatest champions) and the Cleveland Orchestra – one of a set of works written for the orchestra’s 40th-anniversary by a peculiar collection that included Hanson, Mennin, Dutilleux, Blacher and Martinu – unsurprisingly for such a partnership of orchestra and conductor, Walton’s response was to write what is in effect a concerto for orchestra – breezy, virtuosic, up-beat and, as the composer typically put it, “… the Partita poses no problems, has no ulterior motives or meaning … I have written it in the hope that it might be enjoyed straight away.”

The Philharmonia clearly enjoyed itself enormously though there where some distinctly unsteady moments, especially in the very fast last movement. The dry acoustic of the RFH didn’t help the strings in the brass section’s more boisterous moments. There were some beautiful solo contributions from Rachel Roberts (viola) and Gordon Hunt (oboe) in the slow movement, ’Pastorale Siciliana’.

The Cello Concerto was, we are told, Walton’s own favourite amongst his three string concertos and belongs to a series of wonderful and impeccably crafted scores of the late 㤺s and early 㥄 that also included the Second Symphony and theHindemith Variations (a masterpiece by any standard). Often rubbished in favour of earlier scores, these magnificent pieces have never really had the exposure they deserve; they might not have the fire of earlier works, but from a point of view of compositional technique, orchestration, melody and pretty much anything else, they are, it seems to me, as good as ever. The Cello Concerto is full of melancholy, regret and the sort of wistful nostalgia that Walton made his own.

The demands on the soloist are considerable, but never just for show. Steven Isserlis gave quite one of the best performances I have heard him give. He sustained the long, lyrical melodic lines beautifully; the return of the opening theme at the end of the Concerto was nothing short of magical. Hickox was the most sympathetic of accompanists, alive to every nuance and twitch of Isserlis’s bow. The fizzing virtuosity of the middle movement – double/triple stops, harmonics, sur ponticello, and sul tasto – was technically brilliant, but subtle, delicate and musical.

In some of the Walton-bashing that has been indulged in duringthe last few weeks, great play has been made of the composer’s difficulty in getting notes on the page – the most famous occasion been the premiere of the First Symphony without its finale. The programme referred to the marvellous comment of Hamilton Harty (conductor of the premiere) – something needed to be done “to wrest poor William’s baroness away from him so that hecan stop making overtures to her and write a Symphony for me”. Whatever the circumstances, the end result should qualify Walton One as one of the major symphonic landmarks of not just British music but twentieth-century music, full-stop.

The performance by the Philharmonia was certainly dramatic. Again some of the speeds seemed to be on the fast side, but thevirtuosity of the orchestra, especially in the scherzo, ’Presto, con malizia’ had the audience on the edge of its seats. The all-important silences, especially the long one before the final few bars, added to the tension – unleashed by the jagged rhythms and constant changes of time signature. The Sibelian momentum of the long opening movement was on the one hand turbulentbut never out of control and Hickox’s command of structure was impressive. I had momentary doubts about the slow movement – I didn’t feel the unease and ambiguity that Julian Haylock observed in his note, “a sense of emotion observed rather than keenly felt”.

The thoroughly convincing finale (complete with the infamous fugue) was back on a much surer footing and led to a hugely up-lifting conclusion.

I am not sure about the decision to play an encore – after the First Symphony I don’t want to hear anything. Nonetheless there was a swaggering account of Walton’s 1953 Coronation March, Orb and Sceptre”, Walton’s tongue very much in his cheek – the jazziest, naughtiest March of them all.

  • The Philharmonia Orchestra’s Walton Series continues on Saturday, March 23, with Richard Hickox conducting Henry V Suite, Violin Concerto (Joshua Bell) and Symphony No.2 … and an encore perhaps
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201 www.rfh.org.uk

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