A London Symphony (Symphony No.2)
Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
Sir Mark Elder
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 2 February, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Sir Mark Elder’s third appearance in ten days as part of the just-started year-long The Rest is Noise festival (replicating Alex Ross’s book, a chronicle of twentieth-century music) brought a mouth-watering Hallé programme of Vaughan Williams, Ravel and Janáček. Noise? Huh! Here are three sublime masterpieces. The Rest? Hardly, these composers are amongst the truly illustrious, of any time.
This concert marked the Hallé’s return to the Southbank Centre after nearly twenty years of absence, and although the orchestra and its current music director are hardly strangers to London, thanks to the BBC Proms, one wonders why SBC invitations to Manchester have not been more regular (ditto Birmingham, Bournemouth, Glasgow and Liverpool). The Hallé arrived for this rare Thames-side outing with impeccable preparation and in imperious and distinctive form: if Elder wished to make a point, he scored a bull’s-eye. And with the great river lapping the Royal Festival Hall’s boundaries, Elder and his Hallé musicians opened the concert with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s evocative, powerful and very moving A London Symphony, played in the composer’s third and final revision; something worth mentioning given the relatively recent rehabilitation of the hour-long original version completed just before the outbreak of World War One. However the definitive score is from twenty years later, Vaughan Williams having moved on stylistically (his eruptive Fourth Symphony waiting in the wings) but true to his younger self. He removed some fifteen minutes of music and the ultimate publication seems perfectly shaped. If London is the inspiration, the music goes far beyond sights and specifics – the tones of Big Ben, cockney japes and lavender-sellers’ cries aside.
The slow opening music found Elder spaciously conjuring the mists of a new day, a hushed and poignant dawn, the orchestra’s focus immediate (rather less so for some in the audience) before the bustle of the Allegro was brilliantly conveyed and as resolute as the composer requests. The deeply affecting middle section – suggestive of London’s green and pleasant parks – found the Hallé inward and sensitive, then going many degrees further in the haunting slow movement, with searchingly expressive solos from Thomas Davey’s cor anglais and Timothy Pooley’s viola. If Elder’s tempo for the spectral scherzo – the glamorous parts of London lit up at night – was really too fast (losing the movement its easygoing swagger) then the playing was of nimble precision. The finale, arguably too discursive in its moods, paints another side of London – the underprivileged, the homeless, the derelict areas – Vaughan Williams’s Socialist leanings to the fore in music that can be bitter as well as consoling and leading to a searing and tragic climax (the ‘solo’ gong stroke a little underplayed here) before watery figurations return us to the proud and omnipresent Thames and a final fade to magical silence. The occasional reservation aside, this was a dynamic, vibrant, meaningful and pristine performance, emotionally purposeful and always compelling. (Elder and the Hallé have recorded A London Symphony for the orchestra’s label, and numbers 5 and 8 are just released.)
From “A Symphony by a Londoner”, Vaughan Williams’s own unofficial title, to the exotic, erotic even, imagination of Maurice Ravel in the opening setting (‘Asie’) of Shéhérazade (1903), music full of Eastern Promise, wonderment and delicious colours, seductively sounded and exquisitely nuanced by the Hallé. Christine Rice brought-alive nom de plume Tristan Klingsor’s verse with vivid word-painting (maybe some compensation for anyone disgruntled at having paid Three Pounds for a programme that printed neither the French text nor an English translation) and although she could be surprisingly angular at times, there was a temptress lurking within; I willingly surrendered! ‘La flûte enchantée’ lived up to its billing courtesy of Katherine Baker; and the final – and greatest – song of this trilogy, ‘L’Indifférent’, which can sometimes seem as blank as the title, here gnawed into the soul with emotional subversion, just as it should.
Then to Janáček’s Taras Bulba (1918), inspired by Gogol’s tale of the Cossack warrior and his two sons battling with the Poles, music from the last phase of the composer’s life when he was inspired not only by literature but by his friendship with a married lady nearly forty years his junior. Taras Bulba is one of these ‘late flowering’ masterpieces, owing nothing to no-one in style and scoring, wild and unorthodox, yet unbelievably tender at times. This performance opened ideally as if we had just joined a story already started, Elder and his musicians relishing the music’s disruption and beauty, its combustion and characterisation. The opening of the second movement, an extended Slavonic Dance with attitude (torture and death, in fact), was deliberately ‘rough’ from the strings, bows biting, and the finale (the RFH’s organ just a little lightweight in registration if well-balanced) was suitably stirring, for although Taras Bulba and his sons are deceased (one of them at the hands of his father for turning traitor), the Cossack’s dying vision of a glorious future for Russia is made clangourous and impassioned by Janáček, fully realised by Elder and the Hallé.
So here were three very different works by three very different composers – linked, however, by distinctive individuality and consummate greatness – and wonderfully performed by an orchestra (ideally laid-out with antiphonal violins and double basses across the back of the platform, just what Vaughan Williams would have been familiar with) currently riding the crest of a golden wave.