Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Cello Concerto No.2 in D minor, Op.119
Pelléas et Mélisande Suite
Symphony in C
Steven Isserlis (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 28 January, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
French orchestral music from the era between Berlioz and Debussy has rather fallen out of the UK repertoire during the last generation, and this London Philharmonic concert offered a welcome perspective on three works more or less likely to be encountered as a recording than in live performance.
In this context, Vaughan Williams might seem an unlikely presence – and, though his intense period of study with Ravel left its mark on the pieces that followed, any French influence is barely detectable in the Tallis Fantasia with which he bemused a Three Choirs Festival audience in 1910 in Gloucester. That said, the assured handling of strings is a world away from the Germanic models previously adhered to, and it was this account’s greatest strength to utilise successfully the confines of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in separating the ‘offstage’ ensemble from the string quartet and main orchestra. The resulting interplay gave a spatial and tonal depth to the work that Tadaaki Otaka’s attentive and finely-honed, but at times reticent, performance might otherwise have lacked.
It was followed by a rare outing for Saint-Saëns’s Second Cello Concerto (1902) – a product from well beyond this much-maligned composer’s heyday, but which retains his predilection for novel formal solutions. The portmanteau construction might be viewed as being in from one to four movements, given the outer sections outline a viable sonata form that is interceded by a slow movement, scherzo and even a judiciously-placed cadenza. Musically, it confirms that, while Saint-Saëns’s languagewas essentially that of four decades before, his muse had by no means deserted him. Steven Isserlis has long included the composer in his pantheon of worthy causes, and if his impetuousness made the outer sections seem short-winded, his wistful tenderness in the Andante and quicksilver touchin the scherzo underlined his belief in this modest but attractive piece. A smouldering account of Fauré’s Elégie (here in the composer’s own orchestration) made for an unusually substantial encore.
Fauré duly opened the second half with the suite from his incidental music to an 1898 production of Maeterlinck’s “Pelléas et Mélisande”. Compared to Sibelius’s similarly-conceived music of seven years later, this can seem insubstantial, but Otaka’s expansive handling of the ‘Prélude’ brought a fatalistic strain too often overlooked, and found ominous unease in the spinning-wheel patterns of ‘La Fileuse’. The indelible ‘Sicilienne’ was touching but not sentimental, and if ‘La mort de Mélisande’ can yield even more gravitas, there was no doubting its inherent pathos in an otherwise ideally judged performance.
Music ideally suited to the QEH, as is Bizet’s Symphony in C (1855), is hardly a regular fixture nowadays, but a pleasurable excursion into a genre that – in the context of mid-nineteenth century France – the teenage composer was hardly likely to follow up. Otaka refrained from driving the opening Allegro too hard and found a captivating lilt in the Adagio (winsome oboe-playing from Ian Hardwick) that touched on greater depths. The rustic strains of the scherzo and insouciance of the finale were equally well handled – so ending a concert, which had begun in spiritual contemplation, deftly and with a nudge and a wink.