Philharmonia Orchestra/John Wilson, with James Ehnes, at Royal Festival Hall

Violin Concerto in B-minor
Symphony No.1 in A-flat, Op.55

James Ehnes (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 10 February, 2022
Venue: Southbank Centre, London - Royal Festival Hall

In recent years John Wilson has emerged as a significant force in British music life even if audiences like him best as the man who extended the concept of authentic performance to the great twentieth-century songwriters and their arrangers. A relatively puny crowd had assembled to sample the present, not conspicuously generous tranche of mainstream English fare. In the old days we’d have been given an overture.

Elgar had been marketed as the primary draw. In that respect we’re a long way from the doldrum years of the 1950s when the Record Guide of Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor associated his output with features of Edwardian England best avoided on ideological grounds: “Boastful self-confidence, emotional vulgarity, material extravagance, a ruthless philistinism expressed in tasteless architecture and every kind of expensive yet hideous accessory…” The Second Symphony is rarely read as ‘imperialistic’ these days, although few conductors have been as successful as Sir Colin Davis in playing up the ambivalence of its predecessor within a late Romantic framework. Meanwhile partisan musicologists would like us to reinterpret the composer’s penchant for directionless sequences as quintessentially modern, an anti-heroic gambit consciously entrenched. Be that as it may one expected something unorthodox and thoughtful from Wilson, whose February 2020 account of the Elgar/Payne Third Symphony with these same forces played up the asperity of its parallel open fifths while deploying old-world portamento later on.

In the event the conductor relied on urgency and dash to keep any hint of what might now be heard as Brexity tub-thumping at bay. As in Elgar’s own account as preserved on 78s, only more so, tempos felt pressed more or less throughout. What frustrated most was the thinness of the string tone (though violins were not seated antiphonally as might have been expected). Perhaps this is how Wilson hears the LSO of 1930. There were some nicely calculated contributions from the woodwind but brass tended to over-project in the famously dry acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall. The only real repose came at the end of the slow movement. While something in Wilson’s twitchily efficient direction seemed to work against subtler long-term phrasing, the absence of rubato can only have been a conscious choice. Shouty and breathless, this was an update rather than the full report. There was some audience chatter during what can feel like a long Symphony and a seemingly genuine ovation at the close.

The emotional temperature was somewhat restrained even before the interval, James Ehnes returning to a Violin Concerto he knows by heart and has played at the Proms (in 2014) and elsewhere under Wilson himself. Their expert performance was exemplary in its way without ever touching the heartstrings in the manner of Kyung-Wha Chung and André Previn – alongside a previous incarnation of the Philharmonia at the composer’s eightieth-birthday concert nearly forty years ago. As compensation the remarkably assured Canadian virtuoso offered burnished tone, absolute intonational security and relative physical immobility, an old-fashioned mix that put one in mind of Jascha Heifetz, nothing if not a speed merchant. In lieu of glorious, sweetly focused tone Ehnes doubled down on the dazzle with his encore, Paganini’s sixteenth Caprice. For this listener at least the choice tended to confirm the curious lack of emotional substance in an evening of sometimes tense and wooden music-making.

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