Philharmonia/Elim Chan – Gabriella Smith’s Tumblebird Contrails & Brahms’s Second Symphony – Hilary Hahn plays Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending & Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto

Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending

Gabriella Smith
Tumblebird Contrails

Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19

Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Hilary Hahn (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Elim Chan

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 7 November, 2021
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This sell-out concert attracted a younger audience than one associates with the Philharmonia, thanks in part to the renown of a soloist who has managed to combine social-media presence with a sparky, sometimes challenging discography. That said, she was playing safe here with tried-and-tested back-catalogue highlights intended to build a vaguely pastoral vibe. The evening arrived as part of the Philharmonia’s themed  “Human / Nature” series. There was even birdsong in the toilets.

The real novelty, placed second, was Tumblebird Contrails, an enthusiastically ecological eleven-minute score from Californian Gabriella Smith, latterly resident in Marseilles. Her work is little-known here, and this evocation of the Pacific coast dates from 2014. No surprise to discover yet more music indebted to the example of John Adams, an early mentor, but there is as much John Luther Adams and Christopher Rouse in the mix, not least the aspiring, vaguely Nordic, horn-led chorale towards the end. Most distinctive is the empowerment of unpitched, onomatopoeic “background noise”. It would be difficult to miss the evocation of birdlife, of wind, waves and water “sizzling” through sand, all produced by the players rather than being superimposed on tape. The percussion section embraced a drum-kit, snare drum, bass drum, suspended cymbal, assorted metal objects and tam-tam but it was the strings and brass that used various extended playing techniques to produce the squeak and clatter. The composer explains that her title is “a Kerouac-inspired, nonsense phrase I invented to evoke the sound and feeling of the piece.” Marin Alsop was its first conductor at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, and Elim Chan justified her shared faith in the work of a composer not yet thirty. The music does not outstay its welcome. Gabriella Smith was not present to acknowledge the applause but we will surely be hearing more.

First was the Vaughan Williams, long a rarity and a risk with the type of non-specialist crowd that takes a while to settle but lately blessed with peculiar, emblematic status. Ursula Vaughan Williams maintained that her husband, a reluctant countryman, could never have identified an actual lark, and many stories about the work’s genesis (not least her own) have been shown to be apocryphal. Hahn’s studio recording with Sir Colin Davis and the LSO was paired with Elgar’s Violin Concerto, and proved controversial. A puzzle given that her detached, almost analytical style is scarcely an unknown quantity and is certainly one way to go in this music. Her vibrato remains slower and wider than might be anticipated, the timbre not without a certain sinewy quality at times, although she now reins it in at the start and, with Chan more inclined to push forward, achieves a lighter delicacy. A reduced Philharmonia (four basses) matched her dynamic extremes. Hahn’s every note was a miracle of fine tuning, clean articulation and impeccable control. A mobile phone and a noisy departure from the hall clouded the perfection of her closing gestures.

The Prokofiev (six basses) shone brighter-still for reasons technical as much as interpretative. Others have found more charm and tenderness no doubt but few if any demonstrate Hahn’s grip. Like all sensible and sensitive conductors, Chan began with a barely audible shimmer, well below the indicated dynamics. Never have I heard the quick-fire second movement dispatched with such focused intensity. There were no unnatural gear changes, no tendency to race, rather a steely determination to differentiate between sul ponticello and con sordino reiterations of the same material, to articulate every single note, however fleeting. Hahn danced as she nailed it, the Finale went almost as well and the audience rewarded her with a standing ovation. There followed a generous double helping of Bach: the ‘Sarabande’ from the Second Partita and the ‘Gigue’ from the Third

After the interval it was difficult to avoid a feeling of anti-climax. Taking up a short baton she had previously eschewed, Chan secured highly competent, decisively articulated results without telling us anything new about Brahms. Her conducting style was unflashy and so was the performance. Though choppier and less linear than might have passed muster in the 1960s (the strings were not allowed to saturate the texture), tempos were mainstream, the first movement exposition repeat was not taken, and the violins were bunched together rather than being seated antiphonally. From my seat the brass, while properly burnished, could be a little loud, the violins oddly pale, possibly a trick of the acoustic given that cellos and basses (placed hard right) sang out. The music-making, if not the maestra, felt blessedly old-school.

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