Philharmonia Orchestra/John Eliot Gardiner at The Anvil, with Alice Coote

Overture, The Hebrides, Fingal’s Cave, Op.26

Sea Pictures, Op.37

Symphony No.5 in F, Op.75

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 15 February, 2023
Venue: The Anvil, Basingstoke, Hampshire

One might ordinarily associate John Eliot Gardiner with the performance of Baroque music, but he has made several acclaimed recordings of Mendelssohn with the LSO and a disc of Elgar with the Vienna Philharmonic. Judging from this superb account of Dvořák’s rarely performed Fifth Symphony, one might be allowed to speculate if Gardiner will be adding this unjustly neglected work to his recording portfolio.  Turning to the audience he spoke with affection about the Symphony’s “magnificent tunes”, its “careful construction” and, half turning to the orchestra, acknowledging that few in the Philharmonia had encountered the work before. This performance gave every reason for it to be heard more often.

Mendelssohn’s sea-faring Overture has, arguably, been heard too often, but this idiosyncratic account was conveyed with cinematic clarity. It conjured a storm-tossed Atlantic (with some forthright timpani suggesting critical weather conditions) and eerie calm, this aspect not without a sense of forward momentum. If Gardiner’s seemingly impulsive tempo changes brought a certain unpredictability, its dramatic impact brought dividends and indicated a deep understanding of the composer’s intentions.

By contrast, Elgar’s Sea Pictures was something of a disappointment. Alice Coote’s diction needed to me better projected, and she was not helped by balance issues. But she is a natural performer and, notwithstanding her stage mannerisms and ever-mobile face, has a fulsome, if uneven tone, with a rich contralto register prompting echoes of Clara Butt for whom these songs were conceived when they appeared in 1899. That said, the performance was not without dramatic intensity; orchestra and soloist by turns stirring and soulful, and the mysteries of the deep graphically conveyed in ‘Where corals lie’, and the “brave white horses” of ‘The Swimmer’ needed little imagination to evoke the swell of the sea. Had Gardiner tamed his forces (including an electronic organ), one might have better appreciated Coote’s undoubted musicianship and poetic sensitivity.

There were no doubts Gardiner’s enthusiasm for Dvořák’s delectable Fifth. Relished by the Philharmonia, this was a fresh and characterful account bursting with the sounds of rural life, the opening movement’s conviviality to the fore, its holiday atmosphere, pageantry and sense of well-being, not forgetting charm and tenderness, all finely detailed by Gardiner’s acute ear for colour. The flowing main theme of the Andante, with its close resemblance to the opening of the Hebrides made a neat connection and coursed through the movement’s outer sections with an autumn glow, mercifully not as dolente as the composer marked. Thereafter, the carefree Scherzo brought dance gestures, carousing and elegant, the outdoors evoked by hunting horns, its unbuttoned mood fully realised. No less involving was the Finale, its traversal from ominous clouds to imperious triumph, via one of Dvořák’s most infectious tunes, all perfectly caught by Gardiner’s well-judged tempos. For those unfamiliar with this work, this was a perfect introduction.

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