ELGAR: Cockaigne Overture
RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 1
VAUGHN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 2 “London”
THE popular English pieces in this well-attended BSO concert form an obvious pairing. Both were inspired by London, and both are rooted in the expansive Edwardian era when the then largest city in the world was the headquarters of the fabled empire on which the sun never set. Something of the confidence and swagger of age energises both pieces, especially ‘Cockaigne’, of which Elgar himself said ‘Here is nothing deep or melancholy – it is intended to be honest, healthy, humorous and strong but not vulgar’.
The scope and variety of symphonic form gives Vaughn Williams much more opportunity to explore a range of moods and atmospheres in his ‘London’ symphony. The composer blew hot and cold about whether the movements were, as he called it, ‘absolute’ music, or whether they were sound pictures of particular times and places such as ‘Hampstead Heath on an August Bank Holiday’ (first movement) or ‘Bloomsbury Square on a November afternoon’ (second movement) and so on. Either way, the occasional direct references to sounds such as the Westminster Chimes, the cry of a lavender-seller or the jingling of hansom cabs blend unobtrusively into a wonderfully rich, expansive and expertly orchestrated whole – ‘Why isn’t this played at least as often as the Elgar symphonies?’ demanded an audience member at the end, and you could see what he meant.
The ever-welcome Conductor Laureate Andrew Litton and the BSO suddenly clicked into a higher gear in the Vaughn Williams in the second half of the concert. Suddenly the music-making was several degrees more passionate, committed, affectionate and engaged. The first half had seen, after the Elgar, a performance of Rachmaninov’s somewhat neglected first piano concerto with the Russian virtuosos Alexei Volodin, a re-working of a student piece. It is admirable that the BSO gave us a chance to hear it rather than the over-programmed 2nd and 3rd yet again, but it is really no match for them in terms of the memorability of its thematic material or the drama of its development.
One grouse: I know it’s the season of colds and snuffles, but the coughers in the audience were on particularly irritating form last night, almost ruining the wonderfully hushed and still opening of the symphony. Suck a sweet, drink water, mute with a handkerchief or failing all else, leave the hall please! The BSO needs an unblemished canvas of silence on which to paint their superb pictures in sound.