Songs of the Sea & Enigma Variations

Merchant Seamen – Suite
Violin Concerto in G minor
Songs of the Sea
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Philippe Graffin (violin)

Mark Stone (baritone)

The London Chorus (men’s voices)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Barry Wordsworth

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 9 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A truly dismal evening redeemed – just – by Philippe Graffin’s fine advocacy of the more-or-less forgotten Coleridge-Taylor Violin Concerto (1911) which is currently enjoying something of a revival in terms of recording. A pupil of Stanford, Croydon-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was of mixed race (English mother) and is now chiefly remembered for his choral pageant, “Hiawatha”, which was a regular at the Albert Hall during the inter-war years. Sadly, Coleridge-Taylor died young of pneumonia the year after the concerto was written.

Playing from memory, Graffin clearly loves this problem-child – he has recently recorded it for Avie (and Anthony Marwood has done so for Hyperion). At the Proms, Graffin found plenty of light and shade in Coleridge-Taylor’s quixotic, rhapsodic music, lingering over it affectionately one moment and darting forward mercurially the next. Best of all was the flowing, delicate slow movement, effectively an aria for violin, the world of Puccini not far away. The finale’s melancholy, rather Elgarian theme also drew a fine response from soloist and orchestra. The BBC Concert Orchestra accompanied tolerably and with some fine individual contributions, notably from principal horn Stephen Bell, but Barry Wordsworth’s conducting had a tendency to the bombastic.

All four pieces in this programme have a nautical connection; in the case of the concerto the fact that its revised orchestral parts went down with the Titanic en route to the work’s dedicatee, the American violinist Maud Powell.

The evening had opened with another rarity, a crisp performance of Constant Lambert’s music for “Merchant Seamen”, effectively scored film-music composed in 1940 for a documentary about the Merchant Navy. Its four brief movements – ‘Fanfare’, ‘Attack’, ‘Safe Convoy’ and ‘March’ – recall Walton but without his memorable qualities. Best was ‘Safe Convoy’, a seascape, in which there were fine solos from oboe and cor anglais.

If only the remainder of the concert had maintained a similar level. In a ragged performance of Stanford’s “Songs of the Sea”, a staple of my schooldays, the men of The London Chorus were surprisingly sluggish and ill-focussed, even in “Homeward Bound”, the most affecting of the five settings. Mark Stone made a characterful baritone soloist with a fine stage-presence but there did not seem much connection between what he was doing at the front of the stage and what was happening further back. Wordsworth conducted limply. If one is going to perform patriotic mumbo-jumbo at least do it with conviction.

Then came the most inadequate performance of ‘Enigma’ which it has been my misfortune to hear. Tempos were funereal, especially the theme itself and the Variation I, but it was not simply funereal, it was also slack. Wordsworth even introduced extended reverential pauses between movements – for example after ‘Nimrod’ and before ‘Dorabella’ – further sapping any momentum. The ‘Romanza’ (Variation XIII), with its supposed quotation from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (it could equally be argued that the excerpt is actually from Schumann’s Piano Concerto), seemed quite unending. Elsewhere ensemble was barely acceptable, the chattering violins of Variation II clearly having difficulty in staying together, and, even in Variation XI, the bluff one portraying George Robertson Sinclair’s exuberant dog Dan, there were difficulties of co-ordination despite Wordsworth’s moderate tempo. In the concluding Variation (Elgar’s self-portrait) the not-credited-in-the-programme organist, who had otherwise been gazing fixedly at the flying saucers in the ceiling, leapt into action at the last possible moment and gratuitously obliterated most of the orchestra, especially the strings. This sloppy effort marked a new low in orchestral standards.

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