April – England, Op.48/1
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40
Paul Lewis (piano)
Sir Mark Elder
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 6 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Three days after Dynamic Triptych, it was gratifying to record another festival first for John Foulds in this performance of April – England. Originally written in 1926 as a piano piece, it was orchestrated and elongated slightly by the composer six years later, with more inner workings added to flesh out the counterpoint. This performance from Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé successfully drew these elements together, while enjoying the nicely pointed orchestration – with brief but incisive comments from trumpets adding punctuation to the undulating first theme. The addition of centrally placed harps (two) and celesta added attractive colours, with violins antiphonal and double basses towards the back of the stage on the conductor’s left. The piece gathered considerable momentum as it became held in the grip of a chaconne for the middle section, before blossoming into an ebullient peroration, Foulds enjoying the sun and wind on his face.
Paul Lewis then joined reduced orchestral forces for the third instalment of his Beethoven piano concerto series, with a concentrated and, at times, powerful interpretation of the Third. Elder helped to build the tension with an earthy orchestral introduction to the first movement, staccato a notable asset, and once the piano was introduced the two quickly found an ideal balance. Lewis was not afraid to let rip at times, especially in the composer’s own cadenzas, and here his application of rubato was noticeably greater than in passages with the orchestra. The finale made more of the witty exchanges between the two forces – and could have gone further still in this respect – but the beautiful stillness with which the Largo begins was fully realised, the hushed, hymn-like first subject holding the audience completely. There were a couple of interpretative quirks in this movement, with the crescendo towards the theme’s reprise followed by an appreciable sense of ‘drawing back’ when it finally arrived, and an attacca into finale (not uncommon) proving to be a transition from E major back to C minor that was uncomfortable but nonetheless dramatic.
Some blemishes aside, there followed a superb reading of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Mark Elder was careful not to give too much credence to the Hero early on, so while the main theme was brilliantly played there was still plenty in reserve for when it returned in a fuller guise later on. Lynn Fletcher was authentically elusive as the Hero’s Companion, enjoying the game of cat and mouse with the lower strings, though opting not for an outrageous display of coquettishness. The woodwind were excellent as the adversaries, pithy and disdainful, with the lower brass audibly dissenting as the critics. The strings, however, were the stars of this particular performance, sleek and refined but wonderfully expressive – and nowhere more so than in the final section and its serene return to E flat. Before this we had the tumult of the battlefield; the reports ringing out from percussion and brass could have been even more jagged, though the horns were superb in their unanimity. The sense of a ‘happy ending’ was palpable, a triumph over dissenting voices. That Elder kept his baton raised for several seconds after the sounds had faded helped to heighten the work’s considerable impact, as did the lack of an encore.