The Elastic Band entertains
Cello Concerto, Op.12
Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63
The Elastic Band
Kevin Hathway (Director)
Gabriella Swallow (cello)
Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd
Reviewed: 8 December, 2004
Venue: Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London
The Elastic Band, part of the RCM’s outreach programme, is lead by Kevin Hathway, who is Head of Percussion at the RCM and a member of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Its work is mainly with schools, introducing children to orchestral instruments, since the group includes a string quintet and one each of the main woodwind and brass instruments plus percussion, and aims to “overcome the traditional boundaries between audience and musicians to create a roller-coaster concert for all the family”. Hathway’s introduction, which he himself said was intended for children, wasn’t perhaps as effective for the grey-haired RCM audience, but he did persuade us, a little reluctantly, to sing. The Elastic Band itself is clearly of enthusiastic and highly-skilled musicians, some of them relishing the theatrical side of what they played as much as the musical. Three numbers included “When the Saints go marching in”, excerpts from a version of “Mikado” – this was the audience-singing bit – and a rousing medley of tunes written for Disney cartoons. All very enjoyable – and a vital part of musical education, which seems to be completely lacking elsewhere; an enterprise that richly deserves success.
Hugh Wood’s Cello Concerto was premiered at the Proms in 1969, revived there in 1981 and 1994 and now with almost indecent haste has returned to South Kensington, though in the smaller confines of the Royal College of Music. Hugh Wood has written relatively few orchestral works, concertos (one each) for cello, violin and piano, the vocal “Scenes from Comus”, a Symphony, and Variations. Each work is considered, powerful and compelling. The Cello Concerto is a tough demanding work, which stands comparison with those of Shostakovich and Lutoslawski, and demands to be heard as often. The work’s single recording is on NMC.
The concerto, which lasts about 25 minutes, is structured as a single movement sonata with an opening exposition for cello, rising out of the depths to the highest register, which recurs several times throughout the work, followed by an orchestral interjection which rises to a climax. The pattern of a theme introduced on the cello followed by an orchestral passage is repeated twice more, each with a different character, the central climax underpinned by pounding timpani and arching strings. A final orchestral climax is introduced by trumpet fanfares before the orchestra subsides leaving the solo cello to dwell on what has gone before. The orchestral writing is characterised by lyrically intense strings and darkly brooding brass, and the solo cello line weaves urgently through the orchestra texture as an equal partner.
Gabriella Swallow is a confident and accomplished performer; she undoubtedly grasped the solo part firmly and projected it with great clarity and vigour, playing with commanding intensity throughout. Neil Thomson had the measure of the orchestral writing, galvanising the RCM Sinfonietta, a full orchestra, to committed playing in a work.
Elgar’s Second Symphony was treated to a robust performance, which rather missed the complexity and subtlety, the ebb and flow of this work. The first movement set-off at a commendably vigorous tempo but concerns grew regarding the attention that Neil Thomson was giving to the upper strings; their sumptuous tone and seamless legato, though magnificent, seemed to lose a great deal of rhythmical articulation and obscure much of the woodwind. I could see people blowing like blazes, but heard nothing to match, and was particularly disturbing in the slow movement where the long oboe solo needs a far quieter accompaniment to really register. A glance at Neil Thomson’s CV confirms he trained as a violinist and violist. The lack of crisp articulation impeded the scherzo from dancing with real lightness, though the manic climax for percussion was effective. In the finale Thomson hasn’t quite yet grasped how to handle the minute rubato and articulation which can turn Elgar’s sequential themes into long paragraphs; the music rather hung fire and lacked for weight.
The RCM Sinfonietta clearly enjoys working with Thomson. Given his flourishing career with professional orchestras in this country and across Europe, if he can take Elgar and Hugh Wood beyond these shores, this can only be a good thing. Come to that if he can persuade more orchestras in the UK to revisit this intense and compelling music so much the better.