Westminster Philharmonic/Butcher – Elgar, Walton & Bax [Jennifer Stumm]

In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Viola Concerto [Revised Version]
Symphony No.6

Jennifer Stumm (viola)

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Butcher

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 October, 2011
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London

All praise to the Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra for choosing a mouth-watering programme, one also full of numerous challenges for the players. Not all were overcome (the WPO is of amateur status) but the musicians were fired-up and their enthusiasm and preparation shone through.

Jonathan ButcherThe opening of Elgar’s Italy-inspired In the South got the concert off to an ebullient start, an infectious flounce threading its way through the orchestra. Jonathan Butcher and his charges were in good form, some lapses of tuning and togetherness aside, but although the most-trenchant passages were powerfully displayed, the opening energy seemed to dissipate, Butcher’s tempos becoming sluggish, the execution watchful. The ‘canto popolare’ section found Julie Walker’s viola solo as being sultry but also too embedded into the orchestra’s suggestion of nocturnal balmy breezes. (A black mark: For several minutes during the Elgar, the coinage collected as entrance fees was very audibly being counted at the back of the church – such monotonous clinking noticeable through even the loudest passages. This was as irritating as it was avoidable.)

William Walton’s Viola Concerto (1929/1961) was given as is now customary in its revision, in which the composer reduced the numbers of woodwind and brass personnel while adding a harp. The original score (written for Lionel Tertis, who initially declined the work, leaving composer Paul Hindemith, also a noted violist, to take over the first performance) is now making something of a comeback – and Walton did not withdraw it – thanks largely to Lawrence Power. (Of course, recordings made up until Walton’s modifications appeared document his first intentions.) Jennifer Stumm (replacing Eniko Magyar), although not possessing the duskiest or most varied of tones, played the moderately-paced outer movements expressively and with a certain rhapsody. The central scherzo requires silky virtuosity; soloist and orchestra did their best but it sounded hard work; rhythms were smudged and ensemble precarious. A perky bassoon launched the finale; at times, the lilt of Mediterranean dance-rhythms (in 1929 a portent of the young Oldham-born composer’s love-affair with Ischia) was ear-catching. The patient build-up of the finale’s orchestra-only climax was suspenseful and the viola-led coda was a sad and resigned envoi.

After the interval, the Westminster Philharmonic gave a rare performance of Arnold Bax’s Sixth Symphony, its presence no hindrance to achieving a sell-out audience; no more than Bax 2 alienated anyone at the Proms this year. Bax’s Sixth Symphony, completed in 1935, is dedicated to Adrian Boult (not then knighted), its first performance given under Sir Hamilton Harty on 21 November that year in London’s Queen’s Hall. It is contemporaneous with such masterpieces as Walton’s First (also Harty) and Vaughan Williams’s Fourth (Boult).

Bax was a Londoner fascinated by Celtic folklore, its spirit permeating his music. Bax supremo, the late Vernon Handley, regarded the Sixth as not only the greatest of Bax’s seven symphonies but also one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century symphonism, alongside such pieces as Honegger 5 and Prokofiev 6. Such cosmopolitan companions remind that Bax may be English but that he looked-out to the continent and beyond. Sibelius was a big influence, and in the Sixth Symphony Scriabin can also be discerned, certainly in the ominous chords that share space with the Russian composer’s Prometheus (Poem of Fire), completed in 1910. Furthermore, Bax’s music was welcomed overseas, not least in America, the most-famous premiere there being of that Second Symphony, which Koussevitzky conducted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1929.

The WPO and Jonathan Butcher had the measure of the piece (for the most part), the orchestra secure and well-tempered. The pulsation and wildness of the opening was arresting, a vivid kinship with the rawness of nature; rocks, sea and forests. Yet this dramatic and enigmatic work is headed Symphony and, for all the potential images of untamed life softened by twilight, is concise in its structures. Similarly the rapt reverie of the slow movement – Bax at his most Delian (Delius had died in 1934 while Bax worked on his new Symphony) –, with a ghostly march as volatile contrast, was kept on a tight rein without denuding either beauty or incandescence (although someone’s mobile had a go at the secluded final bars). The multi-tasking finale (on the edge of the World or deep-rooted in Middle Earth) and as long as the first two movements combined – Introduction-Scherzo & Trio-Epilogue – wasn’t quite so successful, for all that this is the Symphony’s greatest music. Alison Downie was hypnotic in unfolding that strange clarinet solo, the violins were tender in response, but the slow ‘Trio’ dawdled (and the strings’ tuning was suspect) while the big climax wasn’t the last word in upheaval. The (uneasy) calm then silence of the final bars was too soon applauded into and, throughout the work, the man at the Verger’s desk behind the audience wasn’t averse to some paper-rustling while doing what seemed office work! Still, it was good to hear the individual and stimulating Bax 6 live, so much credit to the WPO and Jonathan Butcher for putting it on and having a really good stab at it.

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