Philharmonia Richard Rodney Bennett Premiere

Elgar
Introduction and Allegro, for string quartet and string orchestra, Op.47Richard Rodney Bennett
Reflections on a Scottish Folk Song for cello and string orchestra [Commissioned on behalf of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales by the Peter Moores Foundation: World premiere]
Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Britten
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell)

Paul Watkins (cello)

Philharmonia Orchestra
David Parry


Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 9 March, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

This concert formed part of the 70th-birthday celebrations for Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (the day itself being 29 March). Alas he was ill and unable to attend but he sent a message of love to everyone, which Paul Watkins delivered after the world premiere. The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall were present, as were airport-style security arrangements.

Three of the works played are for strings only, with Britten’s ever-popular Young Person’s Guide ending the concert in suitably energetic style. The conductor was David Parry whose flamboyant baton technique launched Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro with great vehemence as if it heralded a quick, brisk walk along the Welsh seaside cliffs that are associated with the composer’s original inspiration. Given the windmill gestures from the rostrum evidently the day chosen for the walk was fresh and breezy. The overall conception of this glorious work was based on an energetic forward thrust with little dawdling allowed, nor much sentimentality for that matter. In its direct, no nonsense way, it was effective and the players responded with keen attack.There followed Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s new work, which received a fine performance from Paul Watkins who was sensitive to the gentle ebb and flow of the music that begins with lustre and poetic expression, a compendium of ‘reflections’ on a Scottish folk song, “Ca’ the yowes”. As expected from this fine composer the work (25 minutes and a little shorter than suggested) is beautifully crafted. It fits well with the British penchant for idiomatic string-writing. What was somewhat disconcerting was a lack of harmonic fingerprints from such a seasoned composer. It was all a bit anonymous, even in its eloquence, but the absence of abrasive or overheated effects was welcome and wears its charms lightly.

Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia put Bennett’s relative composure and emotional containment into perspective. The programme note called this a “minor masterpiece”, which is totally incorrect. It is a major work in the history of English music. David Parry again adopted a forceful style by driving the music rather hard but in doing so caught many of the passionate surges that lie alongside the quieter, meditative side of this multifaceted work. He is not the most subtle of conductors and there were times when the structure seemed to unravel causing a some bewilderment as to the long-term aims posed within the music itself.

The Philharmonia missed a trick by not including Tippett’s Suite in D, which was written for Prince Charles’s birth in 1948. And if, in Young Person’s Guide, Britten does not replicate the emotional contrasts in tempo and dynamics that lie at the heart of the Tallis Fantasia, this fine interpretation ended the evening with a genuine sense of pageantry and splendour.

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