ELGAR AND WALTON AT WEST ROAD CONCERT HALL
Is this a good time to celebrate Englishness? At this critical time in our history it all depends on the message. The City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra (CCSO) certainly did the subject proud at the West Road Concert Hall. In a very intelligent piece of programming, the concert consisted of three works by Edward Elgar and William Walton. Both composers combined being thoroughly English with a strong European connection – Elgar worshipped Richard Strauss and Brahms, Walton had his Viola Concerto premiered by the German composer Paul Hindemith.
The evening began in rousing style with Walton’s rarely played Johannesburg Festival Overture. This is a brilliant curtain raiser to any evening – fizzing with Walton’s trademark sense of fun, snappy rhythmic invention and melodic delights (atonal experiments were not for this Liverpudlian enfant terrible of the 1930s). The piece commissioned by the city of Johannesburg on its 70th birthday in 1956, has some, a few, African elements notably maracas, rumba sticks and other percussive pieces. That said, the whole feel of the short overture is that of 1950s England. The main tune reminded me of the soundtrack to one of those monochrome Ealing comedies – I pictured Stanley Holloway as a clippie on a Routemaster bus racing around Piccadilly Circus. The orchestra made a gorgeous sound under the direction of Robert Hodge with strong playing in all departments but notably the large and confident brass and woodwind sections.
Next up was Walton’s Viola Concerto played with sinuous mastery by the young soloist Rosalind Ventris. If you don’t know this lovely work, written in 1929, go and hear it right away. There are precious few concertos for solo viola though it is a mystery why that should be so. Swirling and bending into each luscious phrase, Ventris played with power and pin-point balance; strong in the breathless and jazzy allegros, rich and mellow in the slow bits not least the grippingly tense but beautiful cadenza accompanied only by a slowly beating drum. Walton’s score is never at rest with themes interlocking each other and at several moments the whole orchestra takes over completely as in the exciting fugue towards the finale. This is a quite wonderful work and has long been a favourite of mine (its scherzo theme is one that always pops into my head whilst taking a shower – don’t ask me why but it does get under your skin). The CCSO were in finest form throughout and with any luck would have helped the concerto find new followers.
After the interval we were treated to another English masterpiece – Elgar’s Symphony No. 1. The piece opens with a strangely nostalgic processional march which one could image accompanied Queen Victoria’s funeral cortege (it didn’t by the way). It builds into a spine-tingling climax before being set aside by Elgar for a more dreamlike theme full of light fantastics and meandering melodies. The huge forces demanded of the piece were more than ably supplied by the CCSO not least in the searing finale in which having woven many of the earlier themes as tightly as a Harris tweed, Elgar lets rip on that half forgotten opening march played over rising strings and a great brass fanfare. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye and last night’s rendering was no exception. It was indeed a memorable evening of English music but much more than that – a celebration of human creativity, a universal theme.