The Wasps – Overture
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
The Planets – Suite for large orchestra, Op.32
Gautier Capuçon (cello)
Ladies of Philharmonia Voices
Sir Roger Norrington
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 14 December, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
A thoughtful, relaxed, casually dressed Sir Roger Norrington approaches the podium. He smiles at the audience, exchanges some bonhomie glances with members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, an agreeable hint of eccentricity evident, his baton then electrifies the air and we’re into a buzzing (the only word!) account of Vaughan Williams’s Overture to The Wasps, part of his music for a production of Aristophanes’s play. Norrington oversees (he gives few cues) a scurrying performance, a little harried, the Philharmonia in charge of its own devices; if suggesting occasional insecurity, there’s no doubt as to the infectious vitality that a genial Sir Roger has set in motion (the use and non-use of vibrato carefully planned); if only the beautiful slow section could have been more expansive, although it did come to rest with considerable feeling.
For Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Norrington reduced the string-playing personnel to be commensurate with four double basses. Here Norrington’s pursuit of “pure tone” (as he terms it) had its moments, adding a sepulchral backdrop that is not inappropriate to Elgar’s lost world. Yet Gautier Capuçon explored every vestige of vibrato that he could muster, even in the slow movement in which he dwarfed the orchestral strings, not so much loud as dominating and certainly incongruous (and after which tension sagged when the conductor left too long a gap for musical continuity but one short enough for ‘coughs and sneezes to spread diseases’). This was an unvaried and uninvolving performance, lacking stoicism and musing, high notes strenuously reached for by Capuçon, the cellist’s unrelenting bright tone, vibrating like the clappers, palled long before the work finished. (Steven Isserlis’s suppleness and gut-stringed cello would have been ideal in this setting.)
Capuçon’s impersonal if overly-applied solo performance (the Philharmonia decorous if subdued accompanists) was followed by another (third time in a week) encore that involved the soloist and at least one another, here harpist Hugh Webb strumming along from afar for ‘The Swan’ from Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals, this particular bird swimming in treacly tone and rather studied in its song.
The Planets for the most part was superb and compelling, Sir Roger’s baton now working overtime. Holst’s scoring for large orchestra looked very impressive on the Royal Festival Hall stage, Norrington’s staunch use of antiphonal violins paying dividends time and time again (the arrangement Holst composed for, after all) with eight double basses arranged along the back of the platform. A sense of menace was established immediately in ‘Mars’, the dry tapping of col legno bows particularly potent, Norrington’s deliberate tempo encompassing power, suspense and final annihilation. Some jerky tempo changes aside, a calm plateau was conjured in ‘Venus’, the movement tinkling magically by its close, the following ‘Mercury’ witty rather than quicksilver. ‘Jupiter’ was urbane as opposed to jolly, the great hymn-tune finding nobility, the Philharmonia relishing the kaleidoscopic orchestration.
The Grim Reaper that is ‘Saturn’ had implacable tread, those Norrington-coloured strings coming from beyond the grave, alarm-bells dominating the central uproar, with double basses suggesting something unearthly as the pacifying coda emerged. ‘Uranus’, that marauding love-child of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was here less magician than galumphing giant, the organ glissando near-perfect – so often smudged or inaudible, it was neither here, Lindsay Bridgwater doing the honours. Finally ‘Neptune’ was coldly forming, transient, the 18-strong offstage ladies’ chorus indistinct to begin with, then becoming stronger and managing the fade well enough if (as always) not for long enough or establishing enough distance (eternity); still there was a decent silence at the end, and the performance as a whole had been thoroughly vibrant and meaningful, with plenty of suggestion.
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