Southbank Sinfonia/Ashkenazy at Queen Elizabeth Hall [Elgar & Vaughan Williams … Raphael Wallfisch plays Schumann]

Introduction and Allegro, for string quartet and string orchestra, Op.47
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op.129
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.5 in D

Sacconi Quartet [Ben Hancox & Hannah Dawson (violins), Robin Ashwell (viola) & Cera Berridge (cello)]

Raphael Wallfisch (cello)

Southbank Sinfonia
Vladimir Ashkenazy

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 29 March, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Vladimir Ashkenazy. Photograph: Keith SaundersTo quote its own publicity, Southbank Sinfonia is “firmly established as Britain’s leading orchestral academy…”. As its chairman Michael Berman (I believe it was he) made clear before the Vaughan Williams symphony was played, SbS receives no public funding and relies entirely upon private sponsorship and donations. All well and good to make this clear, and to offer thanks to those who contribute; but better to wait to do so until the Queen Elizabeth Hall was full again – anyway, this was something of an own goal scored by those who delayed their return from interval indulgence as well as being discourteous to the speech-maker, members of SbS, Vladimir Ashkenazy and those audience-members who made it back in good time.

Raphael Wallfisch. Photograph: Benjamin EalovegaOf course, that SbS can attract musicians such as Ashkenazy and Raphael Wallfisch to give concerts with it speaks volumes. On this occasion, though, and continuing with football parlance, this was a concert of two halves. Schumann’s lovely Cello Concerto found Wallfisch lacking the last degree of dexterity, accuracy and communication, the performance as a whole from all concerned being foursquare, the finale rhythmically heavy and lacking sparkle, compounded by an extra-long cadenza presumably of Wallfisch’s making (although he could have borrowed it from Lynn Harrell) that rambled as an add-on to Schumann’s ideally compact and accompanied one, and which lopsided the work’s overall design. There was some gentle, intimate rumination at points, and the occasional tender aside – best was the rapt slow movement – but there seemed little communication between the musicians in a performance that plodded dryly along.

Elgar would have expected the principals of an orchestra to form the string-quartet aspect of his Introduction and Allegro. Here the members of the on-the-up Sacconi Quartet (it members not named in the programme) were the featured foursome; not really fifteen minutes of fame because the work offers few solos and not much opportunity to establish any personality. In any case, and despite Ashkenazy’s sympathy for Elgar’s music on numerous previous occasions, this was an uneven account, bracing, nostalgic and volatile to good effect early on, but with too-spanking a pace set in the Allegro (with lumpy retards of pace to betray the overdrive) that challenged the players beyond themselves and rather stole the thunder from the subsequent “devil of a fugue” (Elgar) that was in turn underplayed.

The Vaughan Williams was rather wonderful, though, bringing an impressive corporate and solo display, a compelling response from SbS’s musicians to Ashkenazy’s considered and perceptive conducting. This Second World War piece, offering solace to blitz-ridden London (the composer conducted the premiere at the 1943 Proms), is dedicated to Sibelius “without permission”. Nevertheless the Finnish master was very impressed with the music that went with Vaughan Williams’s loyalty, and Ashkenazy found many Sibelian kinships during this performance, a spacious account opening up an ethereal and far-away world, enhanced by lustrous string-sound and hushed pianissimos. Such a good feel for the music’s interior didn’t preclude some ripe climaxes, although the final one, before the symphony concludes floating ever-upwards to celestial heights, was way too roaring in the timpani and overly brightly edgy in the brass. The scherzo had enjoyed strings of gossamer lightness and sprite-like interjectory trombones, while the ‘Romanze’ was translucent and radiant, rarefied yet very moving and with eloquent woodwinds and a particularly lovely violin solo, presumably from Edgar Bailey (Charlotte Maclet was listed as leading the symphony). Although on a different level of accomplishment, this SbS rendition was as gripping as the LSO’s with André Previn had been last January. If he hasn’t already, hopefully Ashkenazy will go on to conduct further symphonies by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

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