Moeran, Finzi & Elgar

E. J. Moeran
Symphony in G minor
Grand Fantasia and Toccata in D minor, Op.38
Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63

Leon McCawley (piano)

BBC Philharmonic
Vassily Sinaisky

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 23 July, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This memorable Prom, one of several manifesting Roger Wright’s determination to find room for indigenous rarities, was dedicated to the memory of Sir Edward and Lady Downes. It was preceded by a session billed as a discussion about “British music” featuring Rob Cowan, Stephen Johnson and Piers Burton-Page. I missed that. But during the less riveting pockets of the music-making, I found myself wondering what might have been discussed. While the nation’s music comes in all shapes and sizes, its special-interest groups rarely overlap. The Big Controller was certainly taking a chance with his programming. All the evidence suggests that the lobbyists for mid-twentieth-century English tonalists, vociferous – and eccentric – as they so often are, are record collectors rather than concert attendees and the Royal Albert Hall was two-thirds full at best. Perhaps they were listening at home.

Does Ernest John Moeran’s Symphony in G minor deserve its marginalisation? The work has no claims to novelty but then we ought to have outgrown that particular modernist prerequisite. A related obstacle might be Moeran’s tendency to sound like other composers. His own, gentler brand of invention tends to be overshadowed here by the importation of Sibelian backbone: there’s also Bax, Vaughan Williams and Walton, even (in the finale) some Elgar.

Vassily SinaiskyVassily Sinaisky made a little less of its rich surface lyricism than a proponent like Sir Adrian Boult, whose famous Lyrita recording is back in contention, driving forward more vigorously to capture the 1930s’ angst that lies beneath the surface of landscape, seashore and faded pastoral. There was no lack of weight; if anything the BBC Philharmonic seemed to lack some heft and definition at the top end.

To experience the work live is an oddly unsettling experience. The score’s most glorious idea, the first movement’s second subject (Delius/Bax? – it’s hard to stop playing the game) is remarkable for being under-used, its compressed, oddly muted returns never bloom. Set against the symphonic behemoths of Bax, famously championed by the same orchestra under Vernon Handley (Chandos), the Moeran (which Handley recorded in Ulster) does sound wonderfully fresh and translucent.

The audience was rightly enthusiastic, clapping after the first and most impressive movement. It is the composer’s fault that each successive panel (there are the conventional four) is less impressive that its predecessor, culminating in a finale that loses its way completely in a forest more Finnish than Celtic. The strings appeared less than unanimous at times in the first movement (most notably at the vigorous start of the development) but this could have been the smearing effect of the big barn-like acoustic. However derivative its sense of desolation, the slow movement worked splendidly on this occasion. Perhaps there’s just no saving the finale. The BBC’s lighting team, whose equipment had at least one funny turn in each piece, contributed a backdrop of piebald pinks. The music, in Sinaisky’s hands, was often darker. Was it just alcoholism that ensured there would be no second bite of the cherry for Moeran the symphonist?

Leon McCawley. Photograph: Sheila RockIt is tempting to suppose that Gerald Finzi’s Grand Fantasia and Toccata represented a partial and belated embrace of continental neo-classicism. As usual it took the composer an age to complete, and the results, tougher and leaner than his usual ruminations, seem merely arid and inept. Leon McCawley did his best with the solo part, wrong-note Bach, thumpy and without textural variety. The effect was grim for all that the organ console was swathed in an approximation of golden sunlight. Having fidgeted with bottle tops and plastic bags, the audience clapped politely. If the “Grand” in the title prompted expectations of a send-up, Malcolm Arnold style, these were not fulfilled. Stephen Johnson’s programme-note acclaimed a composition I did not hear, “a very serious piece … beautifully conceived for the instrument.”

The evening ended with turquoise-tinted Elgar. The Second Symphony in this company seemed an absolute masterpiece but one which, as a study in conflict and paradox, could also be said to encapsulate the difficulties of being a composer and a Brit. Should its relative lack of melodic freshness and rhythmic variety be ignored in the face of its evident technical mastery? What are we to make of that astonishing fade-out? And why are there only two such works in Elgar’s oeuvre – or two and a half at best? If the cultural climate in which Elgar worked thwarted the most natural expression of his genius what lessons might this have for us today?

In a great performance this music (with its unexpected trajectory) has enormous resonance. This wasn’t quite that sort of performance, Sinaisky opting to short-circuit diffuseness with Solti-like forward thrust rather than risking all in the Barbirolli manner. In the first two movements, the taut approach bore fruit. No matter that by the time the timpani’s sound-waves reached my ears at the far side of the hall the instrument could seem out of sorts. The finale, always the most difficult to bring off, seemed more cautious than the rest, almost stodgy for all that its climax was underpinned by the tummy-wobbling Albert Hall organ (an addition not sanctioned in the score but an option passed down the line, from Boult to Handley). Treading in the footsteps of Evgeny Svetlanov (who conducted Elgar 2 and “The Dream of Gerontius”), Vassily Sinaisky deserves great credit.

How extraordinary that all these years on from Elgar’s epilogue we are still fighting to retain a post-Imperial presence on the world stage, still leaving the creation and appreciation of the nation’s music to a maverick few. Does anyone know why?

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