Elgar Elaborated

In nomine *
Maxwell Davies
First Fantasia on an ‘In nomine’ of John Taverner
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.3

Catherine Ennis (organ) *

Andreas Haefliger (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 26 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A bitty bill of fare this and a long one, but it did at least demonstrate the versatility of its conductor. The official line was that we were celebrating the 70th birthday of the new Master of the Queen’s Music with the revival of his breakthrough 1962 BBC commission, as preceded by the 16th-century organ work that inspired it. Another kind of BBC commission, Elgar’s so-called Third Symphony, brought up the rear. That left Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto marooned at the heart of the programme: it is presumably the work that Andreas Haefliger wants to play at the moment and, in case you wondered, he is indeed the son of Ernst Haefliger, the Swiss tenor. The BBC’s reluctance to film such concerts ‘straight’ meant that we also had a variety of lighting effects, dappled green for Max, orange for Beethoven and pink for Elgar/Payne, all of them clashing with the mauve strip of sky sited immovably behind the players.

The Maxwell Davies score can begin with the oboe chanting a piece of plainsong, followed by a quartet of oboes and bassoons giving out the Taverner In nomine on which his own First Fantasia is founded. In this performance, as in 1962, we had the organ intoning those statements instead. Either the registration chosen or the instrument itself was badly out of sorts at the start. The actual Fantasia, a third stage in the material’s progress through musical history, is a species of sonata-allegro whose climax finds the brass reaching up through whirring fortissimo woodwind to the acclamation of bells. The work then ends quietly with a melody based directly on the Taverner and scored for oboe accompanied by solo cello with individual notes spot-lit on high trumpet and bells. Not quite right for the hall you might think, and yet this section seemed spellbindingly fresh and evocative, whatever the staying power of the rest.

Suddenly things seemed almost too pretty. Just like Haefliger’s Beethoven. Heard live his sonority has none of the percussive twang of his recent studio recording of Adès, Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann [AVIE AV 0041]. The tonal palette is cool and bell-like, very beautiful if a trifle unvaried. Interpretatively, this was articulate, low-key Beethoven with a deft, small but not Lilliputian orchestral body ably supporting the soloist. Haefliger sometimes leans lovingly on phrase-ends in a manner that might be thought dreamy or self-regarding and he tackles the usual cadenzas with improvisatory freedom and a great deal of pedal. The finale was delicate and cultured rather than barnstorming.

It is difficult to provoke a response with such familiar music, however sublime, and most of the audience seemed to be waiting to see what Brabbins and the orchestra would make of the gospel according to Anthony Payne. Barry Millington went so far as to hail this enterprise as ”a landmark in the history of British music” and there have been few negative voices since the initial burst of scepticism in the national press (Payne: guru or grave-robber?). I can only recall Richard Witts’s memorable Musical Times piece, which described the results as “lacquered rubble”. For my money, Sir Andrew Davis’s early performances and studio recording [NMC D053] were surprisingly tentative, a good deal less convincing than either Paul Daniel’s brisker-paced Bournemouth reading [NAXOS 8.554719] or Sir Colin Davis’s concert-derived one [LSO LIVE LSO0019], easily the most flamboyantly interventionist of the three. Even so the heavenly length of the realisation, its longueurs and repetitions, remain distinctly problematic.

In a score whose performance-tradition has barely begun, the options are wide open and Brabbins took advantage of this, imparting a more confident, ‘modern’ feel to the brass writing, though revelling in some of the more Edwardian rhetoric of the finale in a manner which I found less convincing than Daniel’s lither, more generalised approach. Did it seem like the sort of music a late-Romantic might have been piecing together in the 1930s (q.v. Rachmaninov’s Third)? I think not. Payne was on hand at the close to take the applause, but the patchwork nature of the score came across more plainly than ever for all the obvious care that the performers had lavished on it in rehearsal.

I don’t want to sound too negative. The snap and sizzle of those opening bare fifths on unexpectedly braying brass (shades of Havergal Brian?) came over powerfully. Brabbins tried hard to make something of the featherweight scherzo: it sounded darker with plenty of momentum and impetus, the more lyrical passages beautifully prepared too. The slow movement brought, as it always does, the most profound, harmonically pregnant ideas, only they have nowhere to go. One was more than usually conscious of the difficulties Payne must have faced in fusing Elgar’s sketches into a continuous argument. Parsifal seemed closer than usual and the Larghetto of the Second Symphony, the obvious model for the structure, too close for comfort. Perhaps it was just that we had to endure a watch alarm going off at 9 p.m. pre-empting the arrival of the first movement’s consolatory second theme.

The audience loved it although the hall was only two-thirds full in the absence of starrier names. Time will tell how durable is Payne’s elaboration. For the moment it remains a sure-fire hit. And the BBC Scottish SO is in exceptionally fine fettle.

  • Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 30 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms 2004

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