Simple Symphony, Op.4
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.5 in D
Melvyn Tan (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 14 April, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London Queen Elizabeth Hall
In the second of three London Philharmonic concerts linked by music composed by Benjamin Britten in the 1930s, Vernon Handley made a welcome return to London.
The 21-year-old Britten’s Simple Symphony uses material from his early teens; music of pure enjoyment and composed with notable sophistication. Under Handley’s all-telling baton, ‘Boisterous Bourrée’ was robust and impish, ‘Playful Pizzicato’ tangy and witty, ‘Sentimental Saraband’ full-throated and affecting, the gorgeous middle section full of deep emotion, and ‘Frolicsome Finale’ scurried exuberantly. The LPO’s strings relished the performance.
Although Handley conducts a very wide repertoire, it is, of course, British music that he is most associated with. Good to find him here attending to Beethoven with an accompaniment that led the ear onwards and contained plenty of dynamic and detailed incident (Handley’s trademark antiphonal violins opening up the ‘argument’). Melvyn Tan, his experiences with ‘period’ pianos intact, gave a thoughtful and shapely account of the solo part on a Steinway grand, one poised and articulate, maybe too lightweight in places but crisply fluent, attractively buoyant and, in the slow movement, caressing. The gentle eloquence of this Largo contrasted with the moderately paced outer movements that rarely lacked for strength and purpose. As an encore Tan offered one of Beethoven’s Bagatelles, from either Opus 33 or Opus 119.
Vernon Handley conducts Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony with a wholeness and integration that seems inevitable. Premiered ‘in time of war’ in 1943, some commentators believed, given the Fifth’s generally contemplative nature, that the 70-year-old composer, had signed-off as a composer of symphonies – he was to write four more such works! Vaughan Williams dedicated his Fifth to Jean Sibelius “without permission” and seems to look back to his own Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending (these references were very apparent in this performance – the lack of vibrato at the opening of the third movement ‘Romanza’ seeming to stretch back to Tallis’s era itself), but there is above all a sense of consolation and quiet hope about this masterly work.
Handley’s tempo for the ‘Preludio’ flowed ideally and captured later agitation and majestic climax ‘as one’. The mercurial scherzo’s rhythms were cleanly delineated, subsequent bizarre interjections not over-forced. The heart of the work is the ‘Romanze’, such utterly distinctive music that offers deep solace and, here, no false sentimentality, and the tightly organised finale rose to stirring force (trumpets a tad strident in tone) before Handley reserved his slowest tempo as the music seems to head to an ‘unknown region’ and a becalmed sense of ‘all will be well’. Appreciative ‘bravos’ rang out for Handley on each of his returns, which were shared with the orchestra and Vaughan Williams’s printed score.