Wednesday 12 February 2014

Philharmonia Orchestra: Britten, Adès and Vaughan Williams

Nicholas Collon, credit Bejamin Ealovega
Nicholas Collon, credit Bejamin Ealovega
Philharmonia Orchestra, Nicholas Collon: Britten, Ades and Vaughan Willams
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Feb 6 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Three different generations of British composers

Having just seen ‘Peter Grimes’ at the ENO (you can read my review here) I was interested to see what the Philharmonia Orchestra resident at the Southbank Centre would do with it. Conducted by Nicholas Collon, who I saw conducting the Aurora Orchestra last month and winner of the 2012 UK Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent, this concert also included music by two other English composers - Thomas Adès and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The orchestra suite of Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), first performed in 1945, uses the four interludes from the opera, ‘Dawn’, ‘Sunday morning’, ‘Moonlight’, and ‘Storm’. Their order is rearranged from that of the opera. ‘Dawn’ opens Act I with its representation of sunrise in the strings, over burbling woodwind in runs of major and minor thirds, cymbal waves, and determined crashing horns with timpani rolls. With such large numbers in the orchestra the power and range of dynamic available to Collon was dramatic.

‘Sunday Morning’ opens Act II of the opera with the horns calling people to church and the busybody people pecking around in an offbeat rhythmic figure, first in woodwind then strings. This mellowed out into a more expansive figure before returning to the pecking of the A section. ‘Moonlight’ opens Act III a melody marked as andante comodo, with reaching Ds that were magical over the pedal Bb. ‘Storm’ is a return to Act I and again the Philharmonia made the most of their large forces by producing a stage rocking beast of a storm. Two thirds of the way through we heard moments of calm on the harp but these were quickly dispelled by flute frenzy as the forces regrouped to a finale of loud crashes.

Comparing this performance to that of the ENO orchestra is difficult as the two groups have such very different instruments at their disposal, and very different acoustics to play in. The larger Philharmonia was very dramatic with a clean sound while the ENO orchestra (in its pit) was scruffier but more emotional. Some of the details which the ENO brought forward I could not hear as well with from the Philharmonia – but instead they brought more depth of sound, especially with all those strings, double basses and brass.

The number of instruments was reduced for Thomas Adès’s (1971- ) violin concerto ‘Concentric Circles’ written in 2005. The violin solo was played by the talented Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto (1976-) who last year won the Nordic Council Music Prize.

The first movement ‘Rings’ began without preamble on the violin alone. Kuusisto’s performance was endearing - he was as interesting to watch as to hear. The child-like burbling was interrupted by threats from brass and worrying from the strings. A stiller very high section was the movement of stars and planets, and a low base note marked the return to happier burbling. But the worrying began again, with a more demanding accompaniment which became more fractured before reaching an abrupt end.

Pekka Kuusisto - credit Kaapo Kamu
Pekka Kuusisto
credit Kaapo Kamu
‘Paths’ is the slow movement of the concerto. Described as two large and many small independent circles by the composer we heard a mixture of chords, reminiscent of Bach, interspersed and overlaid with orchestral crashes (maintained in one form or another throughout) which faded into a smoother accompaniment, texturally complicated with pizzicato. A slow build up led into a melodic section reminiscent of a walk in forest, but the build up continued, and the violin more urgent and cyclic with changes in register, over a threatening bass. Eventually the accompaniment faded away to leave the violin once more alone.

The final movement ‘Rounds’ is a rondo with the violin repeating the tune at half speed which first appears on the flutes. Lighter and more dance-like than the other movements, it still had its darker moments. Throughout Kuusisto was almost balletic in his movements with a very charismatic sound.

After his bows Kuusisto came back on stage to play a bit of a Bach partita in his own frilly whimsical style. His understated performance was underpinned by great intensity and a good deal of heart.

The concert finished with everyone back on stage for ‘Symphony No. 6 in E minor’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1972-1958). Composed between 1944 and 1947 this symphony is not what I would call typically Vaughan Williams. Certain chords and sections hark back to his earlier style but in the main this is an exploration of jazz with more than a hint of Russian music and of pre-war English composers like Holst.

The first movement ‘Allegro’ exploded onto stage, a vast contrast with the Adès. Heavy and dark it resolved into an almost comedic, off centre melody which was subsequently subdued under a romantic theme. Other melodies passed around the orchestra kept it interesting. Played without breaks between the movements the Vaughan Williams’ ideas drifted into each other. The ‘Moderato’ movement began with a three note rhythmic figure which returned again and again, sometimes quite malevolently in contrast with lyrical strings.

The trumpets and drums used the rhythmic element to drive four crescendo climaxes. After this the feel of the music changed with a new theme on the oboe, but a fast Mussorgsky-sounding arrangement heralded the loud turmoil of the ‘Scherzo’. Here jazz saxophone attempted to restore order and there was some back and forth between the two ideas. At times, especially towards the ending, this was very, very loud.

The final ‘Epilogue’ was pre-empted by a lessening at the end of the previous movement. ‘Epilogue’ wandered around with instruments carrying on with their own lines regardless of others, leading to some delightful clashes. Several solos, starting with cello, began an exploration of fragments, some stripped down to the barest of essentials. These led into a string quartet that reinvented the main theme and the movement drifted to an end. Quiet throughout this is marked as pianissimo, senza crescendo and demonstrated that even such huge numbers of performers can have a light touch.

The current series of the Philharmonia continues on the 20th February with Andris Nelsons’ Brahms cycle.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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