Philharmonia Orchestra – Elgar 2007

In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55

Truls Mørk (cello)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 19 April, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

One of England’s best-qualified Elgarians, Andrew Davis has a demanding schedule as he takes the composer on a tour of his native land with the Philharmonia, leading up to the celebration of the 150th-anniversary of Elgar’s birth on June the second. This was the second performance of the concerto and symphony the Queen Elizabeth Hall had seen from the same team in a week – though on this occasion In the South replaced Froissart in a generous programme.

It was a bright, ebullient performance of the concert overture, and once ears had adjusted to the large orchestra in the QEH acoustic the performance presented itself with great character. The persuasive minor-key response to the exuberant opening evoked a dreamy summer haze, while Rachel Roberts’s viola solo in the slower passage was notable for its warmth and lyricism. Davis even managed to evoke parallels with Richard Strauss in the string flurries – a surprise until you realise Elgar met the composer several times.

The First Symphony, if not faring quite as well, nonetheless had some fine moments. The processional ‘motto’ theme dominated of course, circumspect in its first presentation but rather perfunctory in its first tutti appearance, but emerging victorious from the syncopated orchestral flourishes at the end. This could however have had more of a sense of the struggle being won, the potentially stormy music of the first Allegro kept in check.

Davis led the Philharmonia with a sense of urgency, tending not to pause at natural punctuation but keen to press on. This was occasionally a hindrance once the Allegro proper was underway, so too in the scherzo, where he could have found more of a swagger.

However he was aided by excellent woodwind-playing in the slow movement, while the double basses helped to give the big outer movements extra depth, an asset acknowledged by the conductor when taking the applause. All the strings could claim responsibility for lovely, floated phrasing in the slow movement, and Davis ensured the textures were opulent at more crowded junctures.

Prior to this was Truls Mørk’s carefully studied interpretation of the Cello Concerto, not taking any huge risks but offering solo playing of great poise and distinction. Davis reduced the string section to good effect.

With the cello always involved the piece makes more demands of the soloist than might be first thought. Mørk was authoritative if still within himself at the declamatory opening, but the clarity he achieved in the faster music was most impressive. Here he was aided by the Philharmonia cellos, particularly in the galumphing main phrase of the finale. With passionately played solo episodes in the slow movement, the mood judged just right with Davis’s sensitive accompaniment, this was a fine, prudent performance.

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