Philharmonia Orchestra – Elgar 2007

Froissart – Concert Overture, Op.19
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: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 12 April, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Billed as “Elgar: a celebration marking the 150th anniversary of his birth”, this concert might equally well have come with the sobriquet “An Elgar Odyssey” as it signalled the beginnings (begun in Leicester the night before) of the Philharmonia Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis’s 18-concert Elgar saga at 13 venues across England and Wales between now and the end of May.

The main orchestral series will be augmented with three performances of the Piano Quintet by soloists from the orchestra, and is further backed up a touring exhibition showing how – in the brief space of ten years – Elgar went from unknown provincial composer to internationally recognised figure. There is a superbly produced 48-page souvenir programme packed with interesting photographs and thankfully unsullied by advertising. This is a wonderful example of joined-up planning. The series deserves every possible success.

The concert opened with a crisply exuberant account of the youthful Froissart (1890), an overture which evokes the world of Middle Ages as seen by the Victorians, the world of Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur” and “The Lady of Shalott” (Elgar inscribed the score with a quote from Keats: “When Chivalry lifted up her lance on high”). Sir Andrew Davis has something of the Edwardian about him – the hooded eyes, the portly gait – and he caught the score’s more introspective and melancholy passages to perfection.

Truls Mørk has long been associated with Elgar’s Cello Concerto (some years ago he recorded it with Sir Simon Rattle) and his performance on this occasion was a joy from first note to last. His playing was quite remarkably secure, the product of long familiarity and careful consideration, to achieve the fullest penetration of the work’s individual soundworld through an essentially Elgarian combination of restraint and implied passion. In place of the usual blur, the quicksilver scherzo worked up a formidable momentum, every note in place, and Mørk refused to wallow in the Adagio, taking it slightly faster than normal and endowing it with rare hushed dignity.

For all its iconic status as the quintessence of Englishness, the concerto is a deeply private affair and it was a particular pleasure to hear it with reduced strings in such an intimate acoustic: to appreciate for once the work’s chamber-music qualities. Under Davis the orchestra accompanied with tact and sensibility.

Would that the First Symphony had been on the same exalted level. Unfortunately the sensitivity which had served the concerto so well seemed collectively to desert the orchestra in the symphony. There were individual moments of magic – such as the solo clarinet’s (Mark van de Wiel) final ascent in the slow movement – but all too often there was a kind of all-purpose post-imperial bluster. Although – as one would expect with Davis at the helm – the performance’s general outlines were assured enough, much was simply far too loud and lacking in careful phrasing. There are much darker tensions and cross-currents in this music than were evident here, and if they are to be fully delineated they require a far greater degree of precision. For once Beecham’s jibe about the symphony being the musical equivalent of St Pancras station seemed well-placed.

  • Full details of “Elgar 2007” on Philharmonia Orchestra’s website; Cello Concerto and Symphony No.1, together with In the South, played in Queen Elizabeth Hall on 19 April
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:
    Freephone 0800 652 6717

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