The Confession of Isobel Gowdie

Les francs-juges – Overture, Op.3
The Confession of Isobel Gowdie
Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 21 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Something of a pivotal concert in terms of the LSO and Sir Colin Davis: the Elgar has already been documented on LSO Live and the Berlioz and MacMillan pieces feature again in forthcoming Barbican Hall concerts.

Brightly lit, occasionally fuzzy, and not as centred or curvaceous as ideal, despite arguably Berlioz’s greatest champion conducting, the overture gathered a compelling sinister momentum and an fervour that led well into James MacMillan’s ‘classic’ that put him on the map in 1990.

Yet ‘Gowdie’ doesn’t seem to stand repetition too well; the percussion onslaughts now seem rather gratuitous; and even allowing that the true events of ‘witch-finding’ in 17th-century Scotland, and in particular the tortured confession, then execution of Isobel Gowdie, require a graphic response from the composer, such onslaughts palled. Certain episodes and rhythmic ‘barbarisms’ caught the ear, and MacMillan’s attempt to write a ‘Requiem’ for Isobel is obviously well-intentioned, just as the layering of Scottish musical history adds a locus that is otherwise missing (MacMillan’s language is too derivative of the then well-established Arvo Pärt and Alfred Schnittke); yet too many effects and much that is obvious, while having a direct appeal, also seem limited and with little now to return to.

Not the case with Elgar’s Second Symphony – a lifetime spent with perhaps his most complex and ambiguous orchestral work would not solve all its conundrums (similarly for the too-taken-for-granted Enigma Variations). As previously, Colin Davis doesn’t seem to always ‘get’ the enigmas also present throughout the symphony; but he does have an instinct for it that delved into the recesses of the music (unlike, in my opinion, Valery Gergiev in the LSO’s hyper but non-penetrative account of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ a few nights earlier…). And it’s a shame that Davis is so fickle about using antiphonal violins; he didn’t here in music (Berlioz and Elgar) that cries out for this arrangement and, indeed, was conceived for it. (Yet, partly to do with the array of such instruments employed by MacMillan, the timpani were unconvincingly separated from the other percussion.)

Otherwise, this was a hit-and-miss account of the Elgar – much more the former – with the opening gouged out (and ‘held’ to the point of causing momentary confusion amongst the players) but with an unbridled energy that was exhilarating. Whether Davis quite integrated episodes into a whole is a moot point and detail was a mix of vivid etching and it sometimes being ‘lost’ in the melee. At the symphony’s heart is the second movement. Whether funeral march or not, the music carries a universal significance beyond words and, from Davis, seemed a weighty counterpart to the ‘Eroica’. (Beethoven terms his movement ‘Marche funèbre’ while Elgar said his own one “has nothing to do with any funeral march”.)

Maybe another of Elgar’s ‘red herrings’ (but I think not), and Davis invested a depth of feeling and conjured a rapt account of immense dignity and overwhelming emotion with portamento perfectly judged in the final climax and, earlier, an oboe soliloquy from Kieron Moore that almost collapsed with passionate burden. Some playfulness lightened the mood in the scherzo with Davis equally aware of its shadows and longing; that said, the nightmarish outburst was rather tame (demons held at bay) and the freewheeling coda somewhat constrained.

Just as Davis had compelled in the Larghetto, so the finale went through its myriad changes of mood with a seamless concentration – from the urbane ‘everything’s fine’ (and thus duplicitous) opening through the searing Mahler 10-like trumpet disruption (the symphonies being contemporaneous) and the (deliberately hollow?) pomp to the final dissolve to – which? – resigned acceptance or bitter regret. Davis found both.

The proms programme ‘tailored’ a 60-minute length for Elgar 2 (presumbably with the hindsight of Colin Davis’s 58-minute LSO Live issue). The score says 50 minutes, and Elgar himself took 48 in his 1927 (also LSO) recording; Davis went to 57 minutes in this proms performance (and others have broken through the hour). But timings are mere statistics!

Sad to report that certain members of the audience, despite Davis’s baton still being raised, crashed in with thoughtless applause after both the MacMillan and Elgar; ruinously so with the latter. No time for silence, and no time for reflection.

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