The latest concert in the Royal Philharmonic’s Green and Pleasant Land series was due to be conducted by the estimable Vernon Handley, a musician who has championed British music with dedication and insight for many years.
Unfortunately, ill health meant that Handley was forced to withdraw, leaving Paul Daniel taking his place on the podium at short notice.
It’s very pleasing to report that not only did Daniel perform the concert as originally scheduled, but also delivered outstanding performances of the three works on the programme. The opening work, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, brought rhythmically alert but expressive playing from the orchestra’s string section in the two outer movements and beautiful phrasing in the elegiac Larghetto. With careful attention to dynamics and balance, Daniel successfully delivered a passionate climax to this central movement whilst avoiding any trace of sentimentality.
Walton’s Cello Concerto was written in 1956 for the Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. The soloist here was Guy Johnston, the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year back in 2000, who has since developed a successful career as a solo artist. This was a deeply impressive performance of the concerto, pensive and melancholy in the opening movement, dazzling in the scherzo, and spellbinding in the two solo cadenzas of the theme-and-variations finale. Daniel’s sensitive accompaniment brought to life Walton’s imaginative orchestration (involving instruments such as vibraphone, xylophone and celesta) without ever usurping his soloist.
The violent and unremitting nature of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony caused a stir when it appeared in 1935, no doubt as a result of audiences expecting a work in the composer’s pastoral vein. Perhaps they had forgotten the dissonance of Satan’s music in the ballet Job of 1930 or even in the finale of the London Symphony of 1913. Nevertheless, the Fourth Symphony represents a concentration of ferocity unusual even in 20th century works. Vaughan Williams himself said, “I don’t know whether I like it, but it’s what I meant.”
Although Daniel’s 2003 recording of symphony for Naxos is one of the finest available, I was nevertheless taken aback at the power and drama of this performance. The commitment of the RPO contributed greatly to the success of the performance, each section of the orchestra on top form, although special mention should go to Jonathan Snowden’s flute solo in the slow movement. I could mention numerous other felicities, but suffice to say it would be difficult to image a more viscerally thrilling performance of the Fourth Symphony than the one given tonight.
When I reviewed the performance of the Fifth Symphony by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Daniel back in April, I thought that few other concerts of Vaughan Williams’s music during 2008 would better it, but this was one of them. Superb.