Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra @ Cadogan Hall, London

1 April 2008

In commemoration of his death 50 years ago, many orchestras are featuring the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams during 2008, but few are likely to better the quality of the performances heard in this Cadogan Hall concert.

Led by conductor Paul Daniel, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gave memorable accounts of the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and the Fifth Symphony, as well as Gerald Finzi’s Cello Concerto.

Much of Finzi’s earlier orchestral music (notably the Clarinet Concerto) is in a gentle pastoral vein, but by the time he came to compose the Cello Concerto in 1951 Finzi had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, and it was to prove his last major composition. The composer’s reaction to his illness makes itself known in the anguished episodes of the first movement, which also contains passages of nostalgia not unlike Elgar’s Cello Concerto. The slow movement of Finzi’s concerto is an idyllic and wistful Andante, with the final movement a sparkling Rondo. Cellist Robert Cohen, playing from memory, proved to be a passionate advocate of the work, providing a reading which was in turn nostalgic, tender, plaintive and spirited. Cohen’s commitment was matched by the passionate and sensitive accompaniment provided by the orchestra under Daniel.

Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which opened the concert, is scored for a large string orchestra divided into a main body of strings plus a group of nine players and a string quartet. Here the nine players were placed on a level above the rest of the orchestra, providing a clear distinction between the groups and creating a magical sound within the hall. Daniel’s pacing was spot on and the result was notably ethereal and timeless.

Vaughan Williams was 70 when his radiant Fifth Symphony appeared in 1943, based on themes from his opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Some contemporary commentators saw it as a summing up of his life’s work, but in fact Vaughan Williams was to compose another four symphonies, each a distinctive and original work. Nevertheless, the Fifth Symphony represents one of the pinnacles of the composer’s output.

Daniel’s tempo for the opening Preludio was notably spacious, but tension was sustained at a high level throughout, helped by careful attention to dynamic contrasts and dedicated playing from the Royal Philharmonic. By contrast, the remaining three movements were given relatively fast tempi. Perhaps the glorious third movement Romanza could have occasionally been given more room to breathe, but Daniel’s flowing tempi were entirely appropriate for the Scherzo and the joyful Passacaglia finale. The symphony takes its leave with the high strings communicating radiance and serenity, a deeply affecting moment in this performance.

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