Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op.36
Sea Pictures, Op.37
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano)
London Schools Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 24 September, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This London Schools Symphony Orchestra concert was especially celebratory coming on the return of a triumphant tour in the Czech Republic. So it was appropriate to open with a festive work by Rimsky-Korsakov. Under Peter Ash’s clear direction, elegant with no fuss, this sparkling work was dispatched with flair and panache that recalled Stokowski’s vintage recording though, of course, without quite the tonal allure of “The Fabulous Philadelphians”.
Having let rip in the first work, a more dappled sound was drawn from the players to accompany the American mezzo-soprano, Jamie Barton, in Elgar’s Sea Pictures. The programme note reminded us of Thomas Beecham’s remark that the first soloist, none other than Clara Butt, had so powerful a voice that, on a clear day, it could be heard across the English Channel. Barton’s voice has not yet reached such power or volume but she does command a lovely rich middle tone and ringing higher notes; the ‘Gerontius moment’ halfway through the third song produced tears in the eyes of more than one listener. Elgar has never received his due in this work. The text is of its time, but when given under such loving direction as we heard from Ash and his attentive players, Sea Pictures rises in estimation. A sympathetic soloist helps and Jamie Barton’s British debut was a triumph.
Written in the same year as the Elgar, 1899, Sibelius’s First Symphony blows away lots of late-Romantic cobwebs. Initially sketched as a symphonic poem to be called A Musical Dialogue, Sibelius possibly was spurred onto composing a purely abstract symphony having been usurped in writing the first such work in Finland by his much younger contemporary, Ernst Mielck two years earlier. Mielck was tragic figure. A genuine prodigy (which Sibelius certainly was not in his younger days), he studied in Berlin under Max Bruch and wrote his symphony in 1897, only to die two years later at the age of 22, ironically the year of Sibelius’s own effort.
This LSSO performance was astonishingly virile. Ash inspired his players to the heights of passionate expression. Perhaps some subtleties were glossed over; the entry of the strings after the magical (and superbly played) clarinet solo at the very beginning was hardly mf, more a hard ff, and the horns tended to obscure the strings at times, but the final apotheosis of the wonderful string theme in the finale was as stirring as could be, allowing the coda to erupt in full glory.