Overture, Portsmouth Point
Two Pieces for Small Orchestra – I: On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Piano Concerto in E flat
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Leon McCawley (piano)
Philharmonia OrchestraJohn Wilson
Reviewed by: Richard Landau
Reviewed: 20 January, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
In the last few years, John Wilson’s concerts of Broadway and Hollywood scores have won him many plaudits, as much for the scholarship as for the brilliant results achieved by his eponymous ensemble of handpicked players. Audiences and orchestras have been quick to appreciate the major talent in their midst, and Wilson’s recent work with other bands – including a successful concert performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Yeomen of the Guard last April with the Philharmonia Orchestra – made it evident that his talent would soon achieve recognition in a far wider musical arena. This Sunday-afternoon he conducted the Philharmonia in five British works, all but one well established in the repertoire. Happily, a large and notably attentive audience experienced some superb music-making.
The propulsive opener, William Walton’s Portsmouth Point, with its syncopated Stravinsky-like rhythms, wit, and infectious vitality, was delivered with a consummate level of orchestral playing that offered a harbinger of what was to come. In Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Wilson eschewed a common tendency to linger, and instead delivered a song-like, flowing reading, both lilting and tender.
John Ireland’s Piano Concerto has a very touching slow movement and the work is worth the odd outing, for that alone. Even though lasting under half-an-hour, the concerto nevertheless tests the patience. The ‘dance’-like tune of the first movement, which recurs in the finale, is not a particularly inspired one and it diminishes in value with its every appearance and development. Leon McCawley played immaculately, from memory, but in the end even his first-rate contribution, together with those of Wilson and the Philharmonia, did not add up to a serious argument for the piece being played more often.
The second part of the concert was totally absorbing. In Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia, Wilson achieved an almost miraculous depth of resonance (given the sonic limitations of the Royal Festival Hall) by positioning the ‘second’ orchestra at the very rear of the platform, on the right and just below front-of-choir level. He sustained the singing lines of the work marvelously well, balancing its complex strands of sonority and emotion. The Philharmonia’s strings were acutely responsive to Wilson’s every direction, and the impressive string-quartet contributions were integral to the success of the whole, Wilson always aware of the arc of the piece.
Elgar’s In the South was also given a performance of one’s dreams, which could bear comparison with the legendary one recorded by EMI forty-six years ago by Constantin Silvestri and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Wilson and his players offered an equally passionate and sensitive account, made even more lustrous by the Philharmonia’s glorious playing, which included a most expressive canto popolare viola solo from Rebecca Chambers, an elegiac horn contribution from Antonio-Geremia Iezzi, and some very affecting work from the woodwinds. All through, from the magnificent eruption of the opening, via the affecting central sections, to the blazing conclusion, Wilson shaped it all to perfection; he is clearly a musician of rare sensibility.