Cello Concerto in E-minor, Op.85
The Way to Castle Yonder – potpourri for orchestra from the opera ‘Higglety Pigglety Pop!’, Op.21a
Symphony No.3 in B-minor, Op.45 [London premiere]
Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 22 August, 2019
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
There can be few now alive who recall the profile enjoyed by Lamia during the inter-war period. Completed in 1918, this symphonic poem after Keats’s fanciful verse of that name was Dorothy Howell’s first orchestral piece and Henry Wood’s advocacy gained it seven performances at the Proms alone. Revived nine years ago, it remains a striking venture by a composer who (more through temperament than opportunity) failed to build on her early success. Which does not lesson this work’s potency, its striking amalgam of impressionist fluidity with a late-Romantic impulsiveness channelled into a design whose formal focus was persuasively projected by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla; the City of Birmingham Symphony responding with audible belief to music by a local composer who may yet receive her due.
As Howell’s creative career was beginning, Elgar’s was unwittingly drawing to its close – his Cello Concerto (1919) being suffused with an ‘end of era’ fatalism and regret such as Sheku Kanneh-Mason brought out with understated conviction – whether in the musing restiveness of the first movement or the glancing irony of the Scherzo. Others have found greater fervency in the Adagio, though Kanneh-Mason’s unforced eloquence was its own justification; as was his methodical building of tension across the Finale towards a climax of palpable emotional intensity, capped by the terse stoicism of its coda. With MGT and the CBSO unfailingly responsive in support, this was a fine interpretation ‘in the making’ – Kanneh-Mason returning with one (XVIII) of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 24 Preludes (1969) as a thoughtful encore and a ‘taster’ for the Symphony to come.
MGT has already demonstrated a wide-ranging interest in British music as continued here with The Way to Castle Yonder (1990), Oliver Knussen’s orchestral précis drawn from his opera Higgledy Pigglety Pop! as makes for a lucid overview of the playful while also ominous moods in which this deceptively jejune work abounds. The present account seemed less concerned with bringing out the allusions to other composers than Knussen’s own, while stressing the motivic cohesion central to this as to all the works of his maturity.
The music of Weinberg has already secured a committed advocate in MGT, and this continued with the London premiere (following on from its UK premiere in Birmingham the previous evening) of his Third Symphony. Completed in 1950, this was ostensibly a response to the anti-formalist campaign spearheaded by Andrei Zhdanov with the intention of making Soviet arts more accountable to their public. Hence the inclusion of Belorussian and Polish folksong, albeit offset by the opening Allegro’s ambivalent unfolding towards a coda shot-through with foreboding (one of several passages made more explicit in the 1959 revision). It was tellingly realised here, as too the Scherzo’s interplay of whimsical with more sardonic humour then the Adagio’s sustained progress to a climax of stark tragedy – only slightly mediated at the close. It remained for the energetic Finale to secure an affirmative ending, and it was a measure of the reading’s conviction that such optimism was more pointedly held in check than Weinberg himself could have envisaged. Superb playing, and a gripping close to a memorable concert.