Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.40
Robert Cohen (cello)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 1 April, 2008
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Green and Pleasant Land” series continues to bring forward English orchestral works from the sidelines, with the latest rediscovery being Gerald Finzi’s Cello Concerto.
The programme note included an impassioned compliment to the composer from Sir John Barbirolli, made after the 1955 premiere. The conductor was extolling the slow movement, which lay at the heart of this most persuasive performance from Robert Cohen. Initially the cellist’s solo line was comforting, yet as the movement grew Paul Daniel fully projected the underlying anguish in the orchestral outbursts. With Cohen most secure in the upper register, however, the ascent to the serenity of the high ‘D’ at the end was ideally realised.
Though a conventional three-movement design, the concerto features several innovative ideas, chief among them the unusual exchange between pizzicato cello and snare drum with which the finale begins. Occasionally the cello was slightly ahead of the wind section, and there were a couple of passages with the full orchestra where rhythmic clarity was difficult to obtain, but overall the finale’s strong cause for optimism came through. This was in the light of an anguished first movement, where Cohen’s commanding presence and the discordant orchestral writing brought early turbulence. The cellist’s attention to detail throughout was exemplary, and though there were more obvious elements of Elgar and Walton, Cohen probed the lyricism that is clearly Finzi’s own.
Vaughan Williams bookended the concerto, beginning with an account of the Tallis Fantasia that made the fullest use of Cadogan Hall. The nine solo string players were placed up in the balcony above the main string orchestra on the platform, ideally attuned to the acoustic, while leader Janice Graham and Andrew Williams projected their violin and viola solos respectively from the front. Paul Daniel captured the emotional surges of the theme without having to resort to sentimentality, and a detailed performance also ensured that the important double bass references to the theme were not overlooked.
The same attention to detail characterised a strong performance of the Fifth Symphony, managing to probe both its affirming and elusive qualities.
The scherzo was particularly impressive, with the wispy muted strings fluttering around the central hymn tune that, as the composer no doubt intended, failed to fully make its mark, with the tight cross-rhythms and incisive brass effectively beating it away. The ‘Preludio’ was restful in one sense at its opening, but also restless in another, Daniel successfully pitting the opposing tonalities of C and D against each other without full resolution. The transition to the faster development section was secure and expertly paced, the return to uncertainty signposted in the basses.
The hushed ‘Romanza’ worked extremely well, with Leila Ward’s cor anglais solo attuned to its mood – initially restrained, it grew gradually in power. The brass, also impressive throughout, was full throated as the last movement ‘Passacaglia’ took shape. However the real magic of this performance, and the evening as a whole, was found as Daniel gradually built the layers of the coda, leading eventually to a beautiful moment of rest.