Don Juan, Op.20
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82
Guy Johnston (cello)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker
Reviewed: 17 April, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
There was a remarkable air of expectation in the foyer of Cadogan Hall – one could not remember such a full gathering of concert-goers for what might, on paper, be regarded as a pretty standard programme, for some time, but there was something ‘in the air’. There was something else, too, which struck your correspondent: the number of distinguished musicians in the audience. This doesn’t happen very often, unless the conductor or soloist is an international figure, or has in some other way entered the musical public’s consciousness, but it certainly added an air of excited anticipation.
Sharp-eyed members of the audience would have noted something else: there was no conductor’s stand. Clearly, he was to dispense with the music and conduct from memory. Now, an experienced concert-goer (which your correspondent is) will probably, in those few moments of individual thought in which he may indulge before the arrival of any conductor, be reminded of the adage (so familiar at one time that no-one can remember who first said it) that “the score should be in your head, not your head in the score” and welcome the self-assurance of any musician who has such admirable belief in his own abilities. But it can bring dangers: in the course of almost sixty years of regular concert-going, your correspondent can recall the (thankfully) few occasions when a score-less conductor has suffered a lapse of concentration and become embarrassingly flummoxed at a momentary loss of memory, only to be rescued by a dependable orchestra leader.
Such thoughts did pass through my mind before this concert began, not least the fact that Richard Strauss’s Don Juan has arguably the most difficult beginning of any repertoire piece: Alexander Shelley was certainly risking a lot, even before we had heard a note. In the event, by bar four one’s fears proved groundless. Not only was this opening string flourish immaculately played, but the command of this 32-year-old conductor was such as to grab the attention – not only of the musicians but also of the members of his audience, distinguished or not – and hold it throughout. One can write about how experienced a concert-goer one is and how rather hard-bitten as a critic one may have become, but the thrill of encountering for the first time a musician of considerable gifts and extraordinarily impressive interpretative qualities – in other words, a musician who one can readily imagine has all the qualities required to become a great conductor – well, it happens very rarely, but it happened here at Cadogan Hall. Shelley inspired the Royal Philharmonic to play at the top of its game: that, in itself, is no mean feat, but the result was a totally, profoundly impressive account of Don Juan that has not, in my experience, been equalled since I heard Sir Thomas Beecham conduct this very work with this very orchestra (as was) in the Royal Festival Hall in the mid-1950s. This was a great performance, believe you me.
Shelley wisely used a score for Elgar’s Cello Concerto. The soloist was the excellent Guy Johnston, who caught the mood of this (still, in many ways) elusive masterpiece to perfection. After the high-powered wide-ranging moods of the Strauss, it was no little achievement to enter Elgar’s world of immediate post-World War One contemplation, and to make convincing sense of it: Johnston, Shelley, and the Royal Philharmonic delivered a wonderful performance.
And so to Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, no less; Shelley’s was once again without music – nothing, it seemed, was to come between this conductor and his musicians. And what that first half had led us to hope for came most assuredly to pass: a performance of this indestructible masterpiece that was total – total in its penetration and depth, in its profound musical understanding and in its extraordinary quality of reaching out to the audience as if for the first time: this was not Shelley’s Sibelius Fifth Symphony – it was Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. The details remain fresh in my memory: I hope they never fade. I have rarely heard the preparation for the concluding pages so superbly paced and prepared as they were on this occasion: the elision to 3/4 in the first movement – a Becher’s Brook of a symphonic passage – was positively life-enhancing and so completely, convincingly organic as to make one cheer. It was all as good as this.
I have no doubt, on this one showing, that I was in the company of a conductor of superlative gifts; Alexander Shelley’s technique is splendid, never exaggerated and always clear and direct, yet equally propelled musically by a deep understanding of the passage in question, where the particular phrase is going and why, and its place within the overall symphonic picture. He is, despite his relative youth, an experienced orchestral musician himself who has played under some of the most admired conductors on the planet; the roster of international orchestras he has conducted is impressive and he is already Principal Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra – but why has he been snapped up by a good German orchestra whilst we in this country offer our native conductors so little in the way of the encouragement that such as he (not that there are so many of his quality) manifestly deserve?
Only one of the five permanent BBC orchestras is conducted by a Briton; we have come to expect foreign conductors of our publicly-funded orchestras as a matter of course, in much the same way as we expect Polish plumbers to turn up when we have a leak. But if it means catching the Eurostar to hear Alexander Shelley in Nuremburg, then even a day out, Wallace and Gromit style, would be worth it. Hopefully the Royal Philharmonic will invite Shelley back. We shall see.