Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra [Karelia Suite … La mer … Dives and Lazarus … Tod und Verklärung]

Karelia – Suite, Op.11
Alexander Tcherepnin
Sonatina for Timpani and Orchestra, Op.58
La mer – three symphonic sketches
Vaughan Williams
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24

Richard Souper (timpani)

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Butcher

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 27 June, 2009
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London

Less than 36 hours after the world-wide impact the announcement of the death of Michael Jackson had made, a music critic would have found it difficult either to resist the temptation to adopt a superior attitude towards the coincidental programming of a concert that ended with Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, or to try to find some correlation between such outpourings of grief and the lugubriously unfamiliar tempos adopted throughout most of the music heard in the evening’s first half. Such a critical reaction, however understandable in the broader circumstances of our daily lives, would have been, on reflection, an unworthy one, for Jonathan Butcher has on many past occasions demonstrated that his interpretations are surely based upon a personal, inherently musical, view of the work in question rather than – as so often seems to happen these days – having come about by learning the tempos from a favourite gramophone record.

The three movements of Sibelius’s Karelia Suite – when we are given the opportunity of hearing them at all in a concert – are often treated as a collection of light pieces, but what was so impressive about this performance was that, by taking the first movement more slowly than is customary, the music took on a darker, more imposing, character which added a dimension to the work that was as unusual as it was both refreshing and musically convincing. The programme didn’t say, and also incorrectly gave the Opus Number 17 for the work), but the second movement is rather oddly-entitled (for Sibelius) Tempo di menuetto. Perhaps, in the frozen Northern wastes of Finland, it is necessary to wear more clothing to keep out the cold, which in turn causes dancers to move rather less lithely than in warmer climes; if this is so, then the conductor’s tempo was fully justified, although the instrumental balance in the very bright ‘up-front’ acoustic of this church tended to highlight solo woodwinds more strongly than the music demands. The tempo of the finale, however, was spot-on, the music breathing the fresh, clean Scandinavian air as naturally – and as welcome on a close evening during a London heat-wave – as can be.

The main attraction was Alexander Tcherepnin’s Sonatina, with Richard Souper a brilliant and expressive soloist – demonstrating, for those who still doubt it, that timpani constitute a “genuine musical instrument” – a statement that Gordon Jacob always impressed upon his composition pupils. However much we looked forward to hearing this piece, we were somewhat disappointed to find that it is so short – its four movements being over in less than ten minutes – but perhaps this admirable composer was right to concentrate his thoughts thus; nonetheless, the performance seemed to be (for those who were unfamiliar with the score) a fine one, certainly on the part of the excellent soloist admirably partnered by Jonathan Butcher.

Such difficulties as these first two works presented were admirably solved, but La mer was another matter. A life-long familiarity with this music meant that we knew what the conductor was driving at – but in this acoustic, and without a virtuoso body at his disposal, the result was disappointingly enervating in effect, the opposite of what the composer meant.

The best performances of the evening came after the interval, with a rare chance to hear one of Vaughan Williams’s unjustly neglected masterpieces in a reading of absolute integrity and depth. It was clear that this beautifully-judged account drew from the Westminster Philharmonic’s strings and harps a genuinely expressive intensity that we had not consistently encountered earlier in the evening. The playing here set the full orchestra and conductor up for a remarkably penetrating performance of Strauss’s early tone-poem – by no means his best, and normally not one that we would care to hear that often – which ended this uncommonly interesting programme on a high.

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