Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra @ Cadogan Hall, London

19 February 2008

It is puzzling that certain contemporary audiences saw in Vaughan Williams’Third Symphony cows looking over gates and frisking lambs.

The work, though misleadingly subtitled Pastoral, is melancholic and reflective, its slow progression and modal tonality communicating sorrow, any evocation of countryside beauty undeniably poignant.

It is, in some manner, a heartfelt Requiem for pre-war innocence.

Vernon Handley provided a convincing and coherent reading here, the symphony’s progression gentle and logical, the four movements moulded into a malleable whole. Dynamic contrast and exploration of sonority captured the attention, Handley careful to illuminate individual melodic lines and draw from the score clear interplay of parts; the lengthy string lines and drones shimmered and the instrumental solos provided intimacy amid the rich but delicately coloured ensemble textures. The Lento moderato‘s trumpet solo was harrowing, superbly played.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra provided a palpable sense of ebb and flow, while Handley’s simple and authoritative beat kept the balance tight. A sense of space pervaded the performance. The fourth movement’s soprano solos, though not ‘distant’ enough, were well sung from off the platform by Lisa Milne.

This singer lacks the silvery purity of, say, Alison Barlow on Handley’s recording of the work with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, her tone warmer, less ethereal, slightly strident. This warmer delivery altered the focus of the movement, the soprano solos seeming less haunting but more personal, suggesting an all-embracing humanist resolution rather than a battle-scarred depiction of nothingness. Then again, the movement works for its contrast of the warmly resigned string lines and the unanswerable and ambiguous vocal passages: here, the contrast was arguably not defined enough. Nevertheless, this was a very fine performance, excellently played and conducted with insight and respect, Vaughan Williams’ often hushed dynamics rarely defiled by the Cadogan Hall’s acoustic.

This programme of all-English orchestral music (entitled “Green and Pleasant Land”) had opened with Holst’s The Perfect Fool Ballet Suite. The venue’s acoustic was more problematic here, the huge drum and brass rhythms lacking brightness and clarity. It was, however, superbly played, with strong, sturdy rhythms in Earth, lyrical cellos and languid solos in Water and hugely surging melodic strands in Fire. Handley’s conducting was as dignified as it was thrilling. Delius’ Violin Concerto is, like the Vaughan Williams, slow to build and elegiac. Tasmin Little was soloist, her intonation suspect in staccato passages but her bowing lengthy and crystal-clear elsewhere. The work is meditative and melancholic, and its performance here was organised and highly moving.

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