Solemn Prelude, Op.40 [London premiere]
Symphony No.1 in A-flat, Op.55
Steven Osborne (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 25 January, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Edward Gardner’s ongoing Elgar Symphony cycle at the Royal Festival Hall was never intended to include the sketches for the Third Symphony as elaborated by Anthony Payne. We were promised alternative novelties of which tonight’s at least survived. The marketing people had come up with the inclusive tag of ‘Three Britons’ and the programme satisfied as an entity. Elgar had asked for Coleridge-Taylor to be commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival. And has any composer written music more peculiarly ‘British’ than Michael Tippett?
For fifty years after his early death, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s abandonment by the concert-going public was by no means complete. Rather he became a one-work composer, represented almost exclusively by Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, its highlights and its spin-offs. There followed from around 1960 the more general eclipse brought to an end in recent years. It is a puzzle that music as competent as the Solemn Prelude, a piece lasting approximately ten minutes and well received at its Worcester premiere (September 13, 1899), should have so completely disappeared. The reconstruction of the parts on the basis of an annotated manuscript held by the British Library has excited considerable interest worldwide. Riccardo Muti has already conducted the piece in Chicago and one can see the appeal. There is a less primly Mendelssohnian quality to the invention than is sometimes the case with this composer, the three-in-a-bar pulse and prematurely Elgarian sequences show him extending his musical resources. Not much sense of direction or memorable melodic writing though, alas. The work, his second commission for the Three Choirs, was published at the time only in a piano reduction.
By contrast Michael Tippett’s period of neglect is sometimes attributed to the fact that he lived so long, his centenary celebrations making little impact in part because they followed so closely upon his death. The other issue is the widely accepted notion that he went off the boil when he toughened up his idiom for King Priam and its satellites. I’m not so sure. The garrulousness of 1950s’ Tippett is on full display in the Piano Concerto for all its many memorable passages. Crossing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with The Midsummer Marriage, of which conductor and orchestra have previously shown themselves doughty champions, it occupies that uniquely Tippettian region in which the magical and the bafflingly impractical jostle for primacy. As usual the first movement seemed at once rapturous, visionary and (at times) confused despite a strong sense of forward motion. Steven Osborne did as well as anyone ever has with the thickets of notes (the emphasis on poetic filigree rather than virtuosic display did not convince Julius Katchen that they could be played at all) and Gardner directed the cleanest accompaniment one could reasonably hope for. The slow movement, perhaps the most stylistically forward-looking of the three, also contains the best music. Towards the close, upwardly thrusting string figures are soothed by the soloist, a clear reference to the Beethovenian archetype and one that works all the better for skirting the kind of instrumental impossibilism more conformist composers avoid as a matter of course. You can’t blame the horns for having stumbled over the leaping mimetic calls which open the movement. The reception was warm and, perhaps given ‘permission’ by the jazz inflexion of elements in the Finale, Osborne gave us an unexpected encore, an improvisation or paraphrase on the opening of Keith Jarrett’s Vienna Concert [ECM, 1992]. In his original liner notes Jarrett wrote “I have courted the fire for a very long time, and many sparks have flown in the past, but the music on this recording speaks, finally, the language of the flame itself.” Be that as it may the healing balm of something simpler and slower was welcome, notwithstanding the cannonade of coughing before Osborne had finished.
After the interval, speeds were consistently on the fleet side. Perhaps harking back to Elgar’s own 78s, Gardner made the First Symphony flow rather than astound. The main body of the first movement rarely paused to take in the view but it was the Scherzo which some listeners may have found too pressed for comfort. The strings just about managed to keep up but the poetry (or sentimentality?) of the middle section was sacrificed. The special atmosphere of the slow movement was mostly well caught. In the Finale, where Colin Davis in old age conveyed a ‘breakthrough’ so battered and hard won as to be in doubt until the very end (and perhaps beyond), Gardner plotted an easier course. He is not the first to avoid the risk of Imperial swagger by remaining relatively low key and straightforward throughout and, if not exactly glib, the climax disappointed this listener.
With the balcony closed the audience filled the lower level of the hall. One eccentric insisted on noisily sporting a fan on one of the year’s colder nights. Others coughed or slurped or rustled enthusiastically. Cameras, officially recording for posterity and not, were intrusively wielded on and off stage. Only the Solemn Prelude failed to elicit enthusiastic applause.