Yesterday was Elgar’s 160th birthday; and I was in need of a big dose of some of the big man’s big music. Fortunately (despite my friend Paolo – probably rightfully… – jokingly calling me a “traitor” for deserting the Orchestra of the Swan, serenading the so-called summer, at Armscote Manor…), the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) were at Malvern, celebrating, too!
Only his Violin Concerto had been listed originally; but the concert opened with a gem-like example of his ‘smaller’ music: the wonderfully enchanting Serenade for Strings. Just a tad uncertain, to begin with – despite a perfect opening entry from the violas – this soon gathered momentum, and the required relaxation, to become a rather lovely, and involving, performance. I had forgotten – despite experiencing the CSO’s magical renditions so frequently – how thick and rich symphonic strings can sound (on their own); and was momentarily flabbergasted. (To be honest, I prefer the sparseness and openness of the OOTS string sound – which I think is more suited to this work.) But the CBSO delivered the requisite amount of charm and affection – conductor Michael Seal gently and amiably swaying in time – to put a huge ear-troubling smile on my face! It also achieved its objective of immersing us flawlessly in an Elgarian soundscape and mood… – although nothing can really prepare you for the soul-plumbing depths of his most masterly masterpiece (see below).
I had never seen Seal, the CBSO’s Associate Conductor, in action before: but was immediately smitten. Here is communication par excellence (indeed, demonstratively on a par with Maestro Curtis): the left arm only brought into use when required; the baton withdrawn when not required; indeed, no grand gestures… – if not required…! Every single movement – its scale (from smiles, to shoulder shrugs, to Julian Lloyd Webber-style long-armed embraces, and beyond) – means something; tells the orchestra what he needs from them; tells individual players what he wants; lets them give what they need and want, and are capable of (which is a huge deal) – and is always just enough in advance to produce the results he is looking for. Rehearsals with him must be a joy; and having been a violinist with the CBSO, he understands completely what is needed and desired from him. Tall and substantial, he employs every inch, every pound, just so – and to stunning effect. If you didn’t understand how a conductor effectuates such rich, enthralling performances before, you would now. What followed was a masterclass in intelligence, unity of belief, inclusion, and clarity – indeed unambiguousness – of thought and direction.
The violinist was Tasmin Little. (This is like saying my neighbour was the goddess Venus.) She too communicates with an orchestra: sharing unison violin lines with them; facing soloists who duet with her; eagle-eyeing the conductor. I have only heard this great (a word I will probably be using a lot) work live once before – having fallen in love with it, listening to an LP (ask your grandparents, kids…) of Kyung-Wha Chung and Georg Solti ripping its (and my) heart out of it to weepingly-torrential perfection. But that previous live performance – which will remain nameless – was spoiled by an over-reliance on rubato, and a band too afraid of overwhelming (or upsetting) the (self-congratulatory and mega-famous) soloist.
No such fears, here. Elgar would have been a proud man (not that he was very good at pride): all those millions of significant marks made in the score adhered to, and delivered as ordered. Even when every single instrument was employed simultaneously, Little soared above them, cut through them, sang around them; and the balance was vigorous and supportive. You just have to believe, to trust that Elgar knew what he was doing… – and everyone obviously did.
My eyes were either closed, or blurred with tears, throughout: so not too much detail to report. That previous sentence is probably enough for my loyal reader to know that this was therefore barnstorming, beautiful and brilliant… – the highlight, as always, the impossible (for all involved) cadenza: which froze my tears to my cheeks. Gosh.
The applause went on for many, many minutes; and deservedly so. Little was incredible. So was Seal. So were the CBSO. (Nuffsed.) If this is the last performance I ever hear of this, I shall die happy: knowing how much impossible wizardry it will take to equal it… – if that is achievable. I had my heart broken many times; my soul shredded; and my handkerchief deluged. I went out into the rain wanting to scream my head off with purest, painfullest joy. Surely no music could ever be this great again…?!
I was – as I am so often – completely and utterly wrong. If the Elgar had been rich, and justifiably romantic, then Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony – especially its intense, rhythmic, beating heart – was as crisp as one of Walkers’ finest. This is not to say that there was no emotional content – far from it. Never has repetition – of note, of chord, of beat – sounded so grand, so remarkable.
The first movement instantly demonstrated that the players of the CBSO felt entirely at home with this music (but were still excited by its potential as a new puppy is with a new toy) – even more so, I thought, than in the Elgar(s)… – and Seal’s control (sans score) of their obvious enthusiasm and talent was a joy to behold. In the first movement, pauses were begun and ended with impressive precision; dynamics grew, thundered, purred, stomped, whispered, built, diminished, died, stunned… with such masterliness that an extremely familiar work gained more freshness than the bracing weather outside the hall (more suited to the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, really…).
In the Allegretto, Seal built astute layers of timbre and of meaning. In the Presto… I was going to say that he drew pictures of sound in the air; but he painted them; no… he sculpted them: reaching out to the players, beckoning them towards him, pushing the volume down when needed; then grabbing it, building instant monuments all around – a Stonehenge of thrilling acoustic. The finale was, simply (because I have no words), epic in its fury and fire.
After writing so many programme notes for so many wonderful works by Haydn and Mozart (and their contemporaries), I suddenly realized – having never been a major fan of the man’s orchestral works – just how much Beethoven moved the game on: transforming the symphony (this being his very best) into something immensely powerful (especially when played like this), compelling, earth- and heart-shattering. [The Elgar concerto is a symphony, too, really, in scope, size, and significance: growing from the revolutions Beethoven had instigated, and what the likes (and I do very much, thank you!) of Schubert, Bruckner and Brahms subsequently achieved in their transmogrifications of the form. For me, there is no work of his greater… – no, not even the Second Symphony; not even Falstaff, nor the Piano Quintet, nor The Music Makers… however utterly perfect these all are in their own ways. The Violin Concerto is so original, so beautiful, so heartbreakingly passionate, so unbelievable… – perhaps because it represents a special person or relationship (who knows? who cares?); perhaps because it is written for Elgar’s own instrument (although he could play so many more); perhaps because he takes all he has learned; developed; absorbed… and turns it inside out: so his soul is more readily exposed than ever before or since, and the orchestral technique (never bettered by anyone…) is thus hidden from sight. It is the culmination of everything the man was… – although to listen to it does not mean that you could ever know the man… just know that he loved and lived completely, and could express such; just know that he breathed, for one extended moment, the oxygen of the immortals. (Perhaps the same can be said of Beethoven…?)]
Oh, to have been at the first performance in 1813, with Ludwig himself on the podium (“…as a sforzando occurred, he tore his arms with a great vehemence asunder… at the entrance of a forte he jumped in the air”, wrote Spohr). If the Fifth had shocked, then this must have awed beyond belief. It still does, now: every single player of the CBSO giving everything they have to produce something quite uniquely astounding: ensuring that this, too, could never be bettered. (If you want a measure of their commitment: in the final movement, the coda’s fortississimo string entry had both the lead second violin and the lead viola out of their seats with the effort of their down-bowing! Sensational!)
This was not a polite rendition; but neither was it rough, or marred, in any way: it was simply the notes, dynamics, and tempi, exactly as written, played with great love, greater skill, and a massive dollop of joie de vivre. As with the Elgar concerto, the ovation went on and on….