The Philharmonia November 30th

The other night I was watching a TV programme about the terrifying power of electrical storms which trigger lightning. At times one felt that this concert conducted by Nicholas Collon was the musical equivalent of being struck by a bolt from the sky. If nothing else, it re-inforced the conductor’s reputation not least for insightful  programming of works both different and connected. Here we began with Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, proceeded to Ravel, the former’s short time teacher,  and finished with Walton’s First Symphony, itself influenced, amongst much else,  by things French.

It might be thought in this company that the VW’s piece was the odd man out yet in this performance it was so much more than a serene trip around the cathedral. It was true that the sense of space in the antiphonal moments between the two string orchestras was well realised. This can be difficult to render in the concert hall but the placing of the smaller body of strings to far stage left did give at moments the sense of infinite space. However, also wonderfully communicated were the moments of rich passion in the work. The orchestra’s leader Sarah Oates’ moment or two in the spotlight were especially memorable in this respect but the DMH acoustic gave the whole body of strings opportunities to glow and one gasped at the wonder of what the composer felt to be his new found powers of orchestration as a result of his time with Ravel. By the end of this performance I found myself thinking that no-one had composed anything more beautiful than this work.

Which made what sounds like the electric crack at the opening of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G all the more of a contrast. On the face of it, the brittle and witty jazziness of much of this work could hardly be more different to what had preceded it and, in his welcome return to Leicester, the Swiss  Francesco Piemontesi  gave such features their full due. In its light and beautifully clear tone the Fazioli piano was the ideal instrument for the work. The pianist in the slow movement  also ensured that the instrument conveyed the uniquely French kind of limpid beauty that  Ravel was inspired to create here. It was just rather a pity , when at the end of the movement in the sheerly lovely moment when the cor anglais takes over the melody  and the piano simply embellishes it, that Odette Cotton’s  fine playing was slightly recessed as a result of her being sat directly behind the piano lid. Hence,  the sense of a divine duo was rather lost in the body of the hall. Whatever, it was a fine performance and sent one out at the interval musically refreshed.

Nothing so far, though, had quite prepared one for the visceral impact of the Walton Symphony. To continue the metaphor, this was like being in the middle of the electrical storm. Later I wondered why I had not heard this great work in the concert hall for decades. Could it be more than simple co-incidence, I wondered? Certainly it makes huge demands on an orchestra and no doubt still, 80 years on, rehearsal time. It is not simply the staying power demanded of such sections as the brass but perhaps more importantly the utmost finesse which is required to deliver such things as the needle sharp shifts of rhythm and sudden and witty changes in direction, all this coupled with at the other extreme what became increasingly important in Walton’s music, the rich vein of the romantic , like Ravel never lush but coolly beautiful. Well, as one might expect of this great orchestra, the Philharmonia and Collon delivered all of this on the epic  journey.

At the end there was an extraordinary moment. Last month we heard Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony with its famous isolated chords of an ending which have been known to bring applause before the true end. Walton obviously thought that a good idea. The second movement has a false ending, almost Haydnesque. Then at the end Walton copies Sibelius, albeit with chords that are sharp cracks rather than anything mighty and weighty.  And then there was silence in the Hall! Given that the audience had not quite allowed the moment of reflection that the conductor was looking for at the ending of the Vaughan Williams, this was weird. For an awful moment, I thought Leicester was rejecting Walton. Then began below the characteristic stamping of feet followed by great applause and  I realised, in the last example of the extended metaphor, that perhaps most of the audience had felt as if they had been struck by lightning and for a moment were just simply stunned. A most memorable concert indeed.

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