What better way to take your mind off the political skulduggery of the day than a concert devoted to three of this country’s finest composers – Tippett, Elgar and Vaughan Williams? As part of its ongoing ‘British Roots’ strand of programming, the London Symphony Orchestra invited the Royal Opera’s music director, Sir Antonio Pappano – taking a break in between performances of Verdi’s Otello – to conduct three cornerstones of the British classical music repertoire.
One wouldn’t automatically associate Pappano with these works – Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra, Elgar’s Sea Pictures and Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony – but on the basis of this exemplary evening of music making Pappano not only revealed an innate affinity with each of their very different musical idioms, but delivered one of the most thrilling accounts of Vaughan Williams’ blistering symphony we’ve ever heard. Opening with a lush performance of Tippett’s life enhancing Concerto, Pappano’s conducting continually reminded us what a startlingly original work it is – its inability to secure a foothold on the standard repertoire seemed all the more baffling given how magnificently it was played here.
Karen Cargill proved to be in total command of the various mood swings of Elgar’s Sea Pictures, here given a full-blown operatic treatment by both her and Pappano. At turns reflective, passionate and declamatory, her wide-ranging mezzo, as at home in the murky depths of ‘Sea Slumber Song’ as in the peaks of ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea,’enabled her to deliver each of Elgar’s five settings with scrupulous attention to the text, dynamics and phrasing, crowning her performance with a radiant account of ‘The Swimmer.’
First unleashed on unsuspecting audiences in 1935, Vaughan Williams’ musical howl of rage seemed to take the composer by surprise as well. Better known for his musical landscapes depicting the undulating hills of the British countryside, charitably called ‘pastoralism’, less so ‘cow-pat’ music, when asked about the Fourth Symphony he replied: “I don’t know if I like it, but it’s what I meant.” After that statement he refused to be drawn any further on the origins of its dissonance and vehemence, so it’s up to listeners to take from it what they will, although it’s hard not to hear the composer’s experience of the first world war in virtually every bar.
Pappano took the first movement at a more deliberate pace than other conductors, but this was of huge benefit to the music as its calculated tread laid bare the violence and grinding harmonic conflict with startling clarity. The repetitive, pounding E-E flat-F-E natural theme was venomously spat out by each section of the orchestra as it was remorselessly thrown around within the orchestral texture. Highlighting the way the contrasting themes are continuously striving for tonality, Pappano’s interpretation brought to light this symphony’s deep-rooted origins in the musical avant garde.The second movement – marked andante moderato – provided some respite, but even here the main theme on the violins was played with a sense of bleakness redolent of Shostakovich in his most despondent mood, the whole musical canvass deliberately drained of colour.
Returning to the musical antagonism of the opening movement, the third and fourth had a searing intensity that propelled the music to its shattering conclusion. The playing of all sections of the LSO was as incendiary as Pappano’s conducting, leaving one hoping they will embark on a complete cycle of Vaughan Williams’ symphonies in the not too distant future. This revelatory performance of the Fourth cemented its position as one of the most daring, and original symphonies of the 20th century.