Prom 34: Polar Strings United

Introduction and Allegro
Imogen Holst / Arthur Oldham / Michael Tippett / Lennox Berkeley / Benjamin Britten / Humphrey Searle / William Walton
Variations on an Elizabethan Theme
Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti (violin / director) &
BT Scottish Ensemble
Clio Gould (violin / director)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Stretching back over a century, the tradition of British music for string orchestra is a distinctive and distinguished one. Three of its primary contributions were featured in this late-night Prom, along with a composite novelty rarely heard since Coronation year.

Save for a slight loss of momentum in the transition after the central fugue, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro received an incisive if at times slightly inflexible reading – not necessarily due to the absence of a conductor. The combined Australian Chamber Orchestra and BT Scottish Ensemble made for a tightly integrated outfit, alive to the textural nuances of Elgar’s writing, though the solo quartet did not provide the defining contrast in tone and temperament that it can.

Much the same applied to the performance of VW’s Tallis Fantasia, though to see the ’shadow orchestra’ placed above the main orchestra and string quartet at the top of the platform was visual confirmation of how subtly the composer exchanges ideas between the ensembles. What was lacking here was a sense of rapture, as the spirit of the ’Age of Faith’ is contemplated without a trace of false sentiment.

Between these pieces, a welcome revival for the Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, a collaboration centred on the tune Sellinger’s Round set in motion by Britten for the 1953 Aldeburgh Festival. The undoubted highlight is Tippett’s ethereal ’Lament’, later incorporated into his Divertimento named after the tune itself. Each of the remaining variations offers a brief and engaging portrait of its composer at the time of composition – notably the wistful ’Andante’ by Lennox Berkeley and the subdued but intense ’Nocturne’ of the sadly-neglected Humphrey Searle. A delightful work – only the lack of a single-composer focus can have prevented more frequent performance.

The Corelli Fantasia has long been established as among the most performed of Tippett’s works – and the present account, as attentive to the music’s polyphonic density as to its high-flown and increasingly ecstatic lyricism, did it full justice. There was no mistaking the separation of the two main string groups, the concertino dovetailing and amplifying aspects of their interplay with exquisite poise. Richard Tognetti is a commanding and technically immaculate violinist, though his conscious ’baroque-isms’ in the Corelli theme was a reminder that even a work written less than half a century ago is not immune from stylistic revision.

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