In the South (Alassio) Concert Overture, Op.50
Sea Pictures, Op.37
Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63
Diana Montague (mezzo-soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 31 March, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This meaty programme, nearly two hours of music, was clearly designed to appeal to the Elgar carnivore. Quantity and quality can be compatible; after all, the Victorian and Edwardian eras gave us such culinary luminaries as Escoffier and Ritz (not to mention Peach Melba). So it was with this outstanding concert, quantity and quality for the most part going hand in hand.
To get the one serious disappointment out the way quickly: those of us who love Elgar tend to have a soft spot for In the South. Rarely performed, because it tends to be too big for an opener and too short for a main work, it’s a sort of English Heldenleben, striding forth with manly vigour and arguably Elgar’s most viscerally uninhibited work, as those of us who heard Barbirolli’s performances well recall. Here, although well enough played, it went off at less than full voltage. In a nutshell, the quick music was marginally too fast and the slow music was too slow – instead of being carried forward on a tidal surge of sound, the music lost impetus and the joins between the different sections were rather too apparent. Edward Vanderspar’s well-played viola solo at the piece’s heart left one dry-eyed, partly because of the insensitively loud harp accompaniment, partly to the limp tempo.
Thereafter Hickox made handsome amends with a fine performance of another Elgar rarity, Sea Pictures, with the excellent Diana Montague standing in for Jennifer Larmore. This was a luxury substitution, Montague well inside the music. The poetry Elgar chose is either ’of its time’ (if one is being charitable) or risible (if not). The best way to approach it is to luxuriate in the music, especially the opening “Sea Slumber Song” with its important gong part and evocation of the sea’s swell. As with Janet Baker, Montague has one essential asset in this music – a real chest-register. She sang with commitment and sensitivity, the LSO accompanied with finesse.
There followed a memorable performance of the Second Symphony, which grew in stature. Taking a swift speed for the opening movement, Hickox never lost the thread in music that can too easily become episodic and becalmed. The real beating heart of this performance was the elegiac slow movement, the LSO’s superb string section – nine double basses with violins seating antiphonally (the arrangement Elgar composed for) – really coming into its own to produce an impressive depth of sound and, where required, the deepest hush. Profoundly moving. The Scherzo was equally impressive, Hickox finding light and shade where others can sound merely frenetic. The difficult finale succeeded in drawing all threads together in a massive climax before the golden fadeout.
This was a performance that took us to the heart of the matter – and incidentally a huge improvement on Hickox’s Proms performance with the National Orchestra of Wales a couple of seasons ago. It’s good to know that when the present Elgarian elder statesmen – Haitink, Handley and Colin Davis – pass from us, that Elgar performances of similar quality can still be anticipated.