Royal Philharmonic/Paul Daniel Guy Johnston – Green and Pleasant … Elgar, Walton & Vaughan Williams

Serenade for Strings, Op.20
Cello Concerto
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.4 in F minor

Guy Johnston (cello)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Paul Daniel

Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd

Reviewed: 13 May, 2008
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Paul DanielThis “Green and Pleasant” concert was to have been conducted by Vernon Handley. He unfortunately withdrew to be replaced by Paul Daniel.

In Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, Daniel, giving a very fluid beat without a baton, directed an affectionate account, the string-sections reduced but providing a comfortable weight of tone and ensured much detail was heard. In the second movement there was some nice touches of portamento, though Daniel’s tendency to over-emote missed some of the wistful qualities that this music can offer. In the finale the response was aptly vigorous.

Guy Johnston. Photograph: Hanya ChlalaWilliam Walton’s Cello Concerto appears far less frequently than his other string concertos, and needs careful handling. One can easily forgive Guy Johnston’s momentary lapse in his opening bar, though as the music progressed there were occasional signs that he hadn’t formed a convinced view of the music. Although Walton himself preferred performances not to linger, Daniel’s occasionally forthright view skirted with congested sound. In the central scherzo, Daniel didn’t appear to connect with the soloist, and although there was no obvious lapse of ensemble, there was less sense of unity. Johnston was more alive to the ambiguous world of the solo variations in the finale, while the tutti orchestral response taxed Cadogan Hall’s acoustic to the utmost. Soloist and orchestra achieved a beautiful unanimity in the hushed close, Daniel’s holding the stillness of his final gesture and silenced a half-hearted attempt at too-early applause.

The problem with the acoustic was immediately apparent in the savage opening of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony. Cadogan Hall is simply too small a space for such a work. Time and again the angry climaxes overloaded in the confined space and every cymbal clash was painful. Daniel allowed the tension to slacken very quickly, which may have been an attempt to let the chords find space to breathe and reverberate. The fact that the trumpets and trombones utterly dominated the texture at their every fortissimo entry was a problem of the acoustic as much as a conscious choice of the conductor.

In the slow movement, although Daniel graded the dynamic to achieve the major climax where required, he could have found more menace, a question of tone rather than volume. In the last two movements he made no concession at all in tempo, barring one agogic distortion, pressing forward and visually swooping down to encourage and emphasise the fugal string entries. He avoided any let up in the blistering coda, and the final chord was stingingly abrupt.

My biggest complaint is that programming these works, lovely though it is to hear them, in a specifically English series, only reinforces the pigeonholing mindset. Each, the VW especially, can hold its own in the international repertoire and deserves to be heard in that context.

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