Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Prom 10: BBC Philharmonic/Tortelier @ Royal Albert Hall, London

24 July 2008

It has taken 10 years for Sir Arnold Bax’s In Memoriam to make the transfer from recording studio to concert hall. Yet that pales into insignificance alongside the ninety-two years the recently discovered orchestral score has waited for its first public performance. The BBC Philharmonic, involved in both ‘firsts’, were conducted by acknowledged expert Vernon Handley in the 1998 Chandos recording here it was their conductor laureate Yan Pascal Tortelier making a comparatively rare foray in to English repertoire.

Bax’s main theme was recycled for use in the score to David Lean’s Oliver Twist film, and here, restored to its initial context, it dominated the opening and closing sections of the work. The strongly Celtic flavour of the melody was exploited by the orchestra in a heartfelt performance that only lagged in the central part, coming together strongly at the finish before subsiding to thoughtful murmuring. Bax’s lush orchestration often pays homage to Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, and Tortelier revealed it in this context.

Wearing a very different, more confrontational anguish, Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony bears a dedication to Sir Arnold Bax and remains one of the composer’s most intensely probing works. Tortelier brought home the deep seated feeling, whether in the jarring dissonances of the opening or the sledgehammer drum slamming the door shut at the end, the tension easing as the outer movements unfolded. The bassoons were excellent in their projection of the unusual melodic contours of the Scherzo, with pithy comments thrown in by the brass, while glassy string harmonies chilled to the bone on the rare occasions the music slowed down.

While opting out of full-blown anger, this was nonetheless a performance that raged like a thunderstorm, and the striking similarities to Mars from Gustav Holst’s The Planets and contemporaneous symphonies by Shostakovich were vividly highlighted. The brass section ruled the roost here, the fake jollity of their oom-pah phrases in the finale most unsettling.

Yevgeny Sudbin, meanwhile, was creating lightning bolts of his own in a sparkling account of Rachmaninov’s first piano concerto, the opening instalment of a complete set of the composer’s music for piano and orchestra this season. The slow movement was dreamy and elusive under Tortelier, though the lyricism given to Rachmaninov’s songful tunes was still affecting, and the give and take applied to the first movement’s surging orchestral theme was gratifying.

Sudbin’s was an exciting performance, bursting out of the blocks with a flourish and ending in a blaze of F sharp major, the exuberance of this youthful work difficult to restrain. He was a most musical soloist, and with dazzling technique had found the ideal vehicle for his virtuosity.

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