Three Choirs Festival – No Bax Today

Introduction and Allegro, for string quartet and string orchestra, Op.47
Serenade in C minor, K388
Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

James Clark (violin)

Philharmonia Wind Ensemble
Gordon Hunt (oboe)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Andrew Nethsingha
David Corkhill [Vaughan Williams]

Reviewed by: Graham Parlett

Reviewed: 9 August, 2007
Venue: Three Choirs Festival – Gloucester Cathedral

After the recent flooding in Gloucester, it was a relief to find the city looking quite dry and bathed in warm sunshine for most of the Festival week.

I had been looking forward especially to an afternoon concert due to be given by Vernon Handley and the Philharmonia Orchestra, which was to have started with Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, to be followed by Enigma Variations, one of many Elgar performances at this year’s festival marking the sesquicentenary of his birth in neighbouring Worcestershire. The work scheduled for the second half was Arnold Bax’s Symphony No.1, which would have been the first occasion at a Three Choirs Festival that any of his symphonies had been played. But we were in for a disappointment.

At about 10.30 in the morning, shortly after he had finished rehearsing the opening movement of the symphony, Handley became ill and was taken to Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. (Happily he has now recovered and is due to record several Bax works for Chandos with the BBC Philharmonic in September.) I understand that attempts were made to find another conductor familiar with Bax’s score, but in the end it was decided that it would be difficult even for a Bax specialist to conduct such a complex piece with little or no rehearsal.

I was lucky enough (with others) to have attended a first play-through of the symphony a week or so before, in London. It was encouraging then to see how quickly the Philharmonia – which cannot have performed any of the composer’s symphonies since Norman Del Mar recorded No.6 with it for Lyrita, 41 years ago – adjusted itself to his distinctive idiom. However, with Handley no longer available, a decision was made to drop it from the concert and to reschedule the other two works. The Vaughan Williams and ‘Enigma’ were put into the second half of the programme, and the concert began with a performance of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, followed by Mozart’s Serenade in C minor. As Bernard Day, the Chairman of the Three Choirs Festival, remarked during his opening speech, warm tribute must be paid to the sheer professionalism of the Philharmonia, who rehearsed the two new pieces during the lunch break for the concert, which had been due to begin at 2.30, though it actually started about twenty minutes later.

The two Elgar works were conducted, at very short notice, by the festival’s Artistic Director, Andrew Nethsingha, who left Handley’s usual orchestral layout (with second violins on the right) unchanged. Introduction and Allegro received a spirited performance, and it was clear that the orchestra knew the work inside out and had needed little rehearsal. The string-players then took a well-earned rest while eight of their wind colleagues played Mozart’s C minor Serenade for two each of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, which was introduced by the Philharmonia’s Principal Oboe, Gordon Hunt, who also led the ensemble. A large cathedral is not the ideal place in which to play such intimate music, but once again one has to admire the artistry of the players in presenting a substantial four-movement work under such circumstances.

The leader of the Philharmonia, James Clark, was the sweet-toned soloist in The Lark Ascending, which David Corkhill (the Philharmonia’s principal percussionist and no stranger to conducting) directed. The audience was held throughout the piece, and the tranquillity of the ending was spoilt only by noises emanating from outside the cathedral, an unavoidable hazard. Andrew Nethsingha then returned to the podium to conduct a full-blooded performance of Enigma Variations. The orchestra had already rehearsed this work with Handley in the morning, and Nethsingha’s performance was not far removed from my recollections of how ‘Tod’ himself has often conducted it, in particular a ‘Nimrod’ that was taken faster than with many other conductors and yet had all the necessary emotional power. The ‘Dorabella’ variation, which followed, was beautifully done, and the many solos with which Elgar sprinkled his score were played to perfection. Nethsingha and the Philharmonia justifiably received an ovation at the end of the concert.

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