Saturday, February 02, 2013


Curious that the conductors Monteux and Toscanini who gave fine performances of the Enigma Variations did not subsequently tackle Elgar's symphonies. I suspect that it was because those symphonies are, especially the first and last movements, subjective in emotional content whereas the Variations are more objective. I suspect that this was the reason for Beecham's high-handed, indeed ruthless cutting of the first symphony.

During the year after the premiere of that symphony the hundred or so performances of the work did not suffer the indignity of the Beecham treatment when he reduced the work's fifty or so minutes to a paltry 38.  The above thoughts were induced by attending the Barbican concert given by the BBCSO on January ll when Andrew Litton conducted a programme of British music. He proved himself once again to be yet another American conductor who can be relied on to get right inside the music of our composers. My only quibble concerns the extreme loudness of the playing; Litton seems to be suffering from a current delusion of performers: that volume equals intensity. The orchestra responded enthusiastically  and virtuosic ally to his exhortation, strings sang, bugles/ trumpets, likewise the muted trombones as they quietly barked out that four-chord phrase at the close of the Adagio, letting us hear Elgar's genius for inventing short phrases that are truly memorable.
In 1938 Benjamin Britten played the solo part in his new Piano Concerto, a dazzling performance (I heard it on the wireless) of a work that could only be written by a young man (curly-mop was just twenty-five at the time) The concerto does not outstay its 34 minute length, despite its show-off, look at me, mummy, quality. The four movements have genre titles, Toccata, Waltz, Impromptu and March, the third number being a replacement written for the revised version of 1945 (soloist Noel Mewton-Wood).

The soloist at the Barbican was another Benjamin, even younger than the composer was at the premiere but no less brilliant with the entire virtuoso pianistic. You may remember that Benjamin Grosvenor was a BBC finalist in 2004 when he was only eleven years old - he played the two-handed Ravel Concerto but the judges didn't give him the top-prize (because they thought he was too young, I heard). Andrew Litton presided on the podium meaningfully, artfully, successfully. The concert began with a twenty-minute number called Night Ferry; title derived from a poem by Robert Lowell where the ferry is depicted "huddled in a big sea, the whole craft ringing with an armourer's music." So, lots of scurrying strings and heavy brass but not somehow suggesting the ocean as well as composers in the past (Wagner, Debussy, Britten). The composer was Anne Clyne (born London 1980, living now and getting performances in the States). She seems to eschew melody and although there was plenty of movement in her piece there was little action.

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