Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
A London Symphony (Symphony No.2)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 29 June, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
You have to think fairly hard to figure out the coupling in this concert (except being part of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra “Green and Pleasant” series of English music). To sell tickets? No, the Royal Albert Hall was one-third full. Twinning two great English composers? Yes, but Vaughan Williams’s music still lacks general appreciation. No need for a soloist’s fee? True, but soloists have audience appeal.
No, the feeling that lay behind this concert was a lazy and pointless rationale; Elgar sells and it is time to celebrate Vaughan Williams. This resulted in a sense of musical indigestion: when A London Symphony drew to its quiet close the evening certainly seemed longer than it was.
The best reason I can think of for juxtaposing these two works is that it shows graphically (and aurally!) how one tradition in English music so quickly followed another. Barely thirteen years separate Enigma Variations and (in its original version) A London Symphony; today, they seem to represent very different worlds. By the time A London Symphony was composed, in 1913, Elgar’s muse (and reputation) was on the wane. Vaughan Williams was the coming man. It is to be hoped, in this 50th-anniversary-year of his death, the world will recognise the tremendous impact he made on the development of English music in his early years with “A Sea Symphony” (setting Walt Whitman’s words) and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. These works led to the novel harmonies (to Elgar at least) he uses in A London Symphony.
Put this way I applaud the Royal Philharmonic’s programming for causing reflection on how the baton of English musical tradition was so quickly passed on in the early years of the 20th-century.
As to the performances, Sir Andrew Davis showed great powers of persuasion in drawing refined playing from the Orchestra. Enigma glided in on a whisper; and the second movement (‘Nocturne’) of the symphony (1936 revision) was similarly beautifully played. Davis’s approached produced comfortable, almost serene, sounds throughout the evening. The negative of this approach was that both works suffered from a lack of visceral excitement.
The Royal Albert Hall is a big space to fill and if the brass section cannot assert itself in the symphony’s first movement, where then? Everything was finely blended whereas the hall demanded more variety in projection. It is this uniformity of sound that ultimately produced a sense of weariness on the ear. It also caused at least one listener to wish Enigma a sabbatical year when it can be sent out into the wider world to offer the virtues of this supremely gifted English composer to overseas audiences who do not frequently enough hear this wonderfully representative work. A reciprocal agreement: we could get a non-English conductor for the next Enigma. And the same for Vaughan Williams.