As London became a vision in white and all went quiet, the Southbank Centre was abuzz with all manner of arts-related activities. One rail replacement bus and a brisk walk behind me, I had made it to see the Philharmonia Orchestra’s matinee concert of 20th-century English music, framed around John Ireland’s Piano Concerto.
John Wilson – founder and conductor of the John Wilson Orchestra – was guest conductor for this particular concert. Having won acclaim for his interpretations of Broadway hits and show-stopping Hollywood movie tunes, I was curious to see how his customary energy would translate to more mainstream classical music—would such vitality be too much for the more genteel of the concert items here?
In fact, the entire performance was a great success, and Wilson’s energy (lots of it!) translated very well indeed. The concert opened with William Walton’s Portsmouth Point overture, composed in 1925 when Walton was just 23 years old. Based on an 1811 etching by Thomas Rowlandson depicting a rumbustuous harbour scene, Walton’s oeuvre uses rhythms derived from jazz music and Catalonian dance to portray the raucous behaviour of the sailors spilling out of taverns and the maidens of a certain repute with whom they cavort in the street. The orchestra’s response to the directions given produced a punchy sound, and it captured the spirit of the work with some superbly tight ensemble.
A marked contrast to this jollity came in the form of Delius’ 1912 tone poem On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, based on a Norwegian folk-song. It is perhaps not the most sophisticated piece of its genre, but the fluidity of the orchestra’s playing, and the delicacy of Wilson’s conducting, made it easy to imagine the pastoral scenes Delius intended to evoke.
The centrepiece of this matinee was John Ireland’s Piano Concerto, which, despite its relative musical conservatism, was composed in 1930, later than the other items in the programme. It is not one that is played particularly often – certainly, I had only ever heard a recording of it – perhaps because it is not the most inspiring of works. Written for and dedicated to his muse and romantic interest, the pianist Helen Perkin, Ireland promptly withdrew his dedication when she engaged in a relationship with another man, whom she later married and with whom she subsequently moved to Australia. Pianist Leon McCawley’s superb, faultless playing brought out as much as possible of the expressiveness of the lento second movement, whilst obviously enjoying himself in the almost jazz-like sections of the first and third movements.
The second half of the concert began with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ masterpiece, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, written in 1910 for performance at the Three Choirs Festival (the theme, of course, being Tallis’ Third Mode Melody from the English Hymnal. The orchestra itself is divided into three: a full-sized orchestra, a much smaller orchestra (two per part, with the exception of the one double bass), and string quartet. As well as milking the sumptuous texture of the piece, the orchestra made it a visually appealing – and highly effective – performance by having the second (smaller) orchestra placed in an elevated position at the back of the stage, so that their quiet sound nevertheless carried over the already sonorous full orchestra in the challenging acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall. Just occasionally, the back desks of the first violins tended to play slightly behind the front desks, but generally the three orchestral divisions proved highly responsive to John Wilson’s fastidious direction.
Anything following that performance of RVW’s Fantasia was bound to be an anti-climax, but in fact Elgar’s In the South (Alassio) was far less so than anticipated. I had previously heard the piece in concert and had struggled to make sense of the scene that Elgar was trying to depict (Alassio being a town on the Italian Riviera, where Elgar took a holiday with his family in the winter of 1903-4, in which time he also composed the eponymous work): in his own words: “streams, flowers, hills; the distant snow mountains in one direction and the blue Mediterranean in the other”. The Philharmonia Orchestra, however, captured the scene with its expressive, yet precise playing, capturing all the subtleties (and non-subtleties!) of this work. In particular, the tender viola solo in the central section of the piece, played by Rebecca Chambers, was perfectly executed and a real treat to have heard.
Whatever questions I had had about John Wilson’s approach to music outside what might be regarded as his “comfort zone” were completely thrown out of the window – this was a commanding and mesmerising performance which will not easily be forgotten. He and the Philharmonia Orchestra gave the pieces the individual treatment they deserved, whilst making each one very compelling indeed; a wonderful performance overall.
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Leon McCawley © Sheila Rock