LPO Concert – 28th September

Scherzo capriccioso, Op.66
Grieg orch. Joseph Horovitz (with additional orchestration by Benjamin Wallfisch)
Cello Concerto (after Cello Sonata, Op.36)
Symphony No.2 in D

Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Orchestrating a duo sonata does not necessarily make it a concerto. That’s certainly the case here. Horovitz’s orchestration obliged a transcription of the cello part for double bass. Benjamin Wallfisch has supplied additional orchestral support given he’s opened up various sonata-performers’ outer-movement cuts, which Horovitz sustained.

Not having heard the sonata for some time, my memory of it, that it has its moments but is not especially distinguished, was substantiated; in its ’new’ form, it fails to convince. Grieg used the best ideas elsewhere, and I wish further the rather trite tune that opens the finale, and which comes around too often; but then, the finale is long-winded, repetitive and would be usefully cut!

Also evident are problems of ’splitting’ the piano part for orchestra. This is not to do with debating the pros and cons of arrangements – many such transformations can be highly successful – but whether such an undertaking offers an illuminating new angle. If anything, turning this sonata into a supposed concerto makes the piece appear even weaker. The orchestration is well-enough crafted (with some imaginative use of solo strings in the first movement; curiously, Elgar is suggested at times); yet my overriding impression is that the piano’s ability to complement and dialogue being lost leaves the cello in a vacuum, as an obbligato instrument, cello as main character in a rather aimless tone-poem. For all Wallfisch’s advocacy, somewhat monochrome here, Handley’s attentive and spirited conducting, and excellent orchestral playing, my resistance is fuelled by the over-use of cymbal clashes; a colour that palls all to easily and becomes irksome when used so persistently and obviously as here.

Last time he was in London, Vernon Handley stole the show in a Gramophone concert; an inspired LSO account of Bax’s Tintagel, a composer very close to Handley’s heart. Having interviewed ’Tod’ on several occasions, I know he’s keen, despite his consistent championing of British music, to be regarded for all areas of the repertoire; it was good then to hear him in Dvorak and Brahms.

In these ’Friday Series – Classics For Pleasure’ concerts, the LPO gives the audience the choice of opening work. Surprisingly, and gratifyingly, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel wasn’t chosen! Dvorak’s masterly scherzo, less often heard, for all its caprice and lilt was written in the shadow of his mother’s death. Handley’s all-encompassing tempo caught the various moods admirably, with plenty of detail elicited, Slavic exuberance and halting-step perfectly interwoven. The cor anglais-led middle section was suitably melancholy – Handley’s observance of the usually-ignored repeat welcome; it’s structurally important – and he reported the coda’s fierce determination vividly.

No repeat in the first movement of the Brahms, underlining Handley’s directness, throwing an emphasis onto the wistful coda, which Handley curved with heart. This was a carefully judged reading, one that had purpose and resolution, all links in the symphonic chain equally strong, and with a sense of each movement being a constant progress of mood and intensity; thus the animated finale drew the threads together. The unusually tranquil way with which Handley introduced the first movement’s development – the calm before the storm – revealed a new facet of the music. This was, in short, a masterly performance. One is tempted to say, a triumph for Tod; he, I’m sure, would rather I say, a triumph for Brahms … and Dvorak … and the LPO.

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