sat 25/05/2024

Coote, Philharmonia, Gardiner, Southbank Centre online review - English masterworks | reviews, news & interviews

Coote, Philharmonia, Gardiner, Southbank Centre online review - English masterworks

Coote, Philharmonia, Gardiner, Southbank Centre online review - English masterworks

Compelling Tippett and Britten alongside Elgar’s perennial favourite

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Alice Coote and the Philharmonia in Britten's 'Phaedra'Philharmonia

This Philharmonia concert from the Royal Festival Hall comprised three masterworks of English music, following a (welcome) trend that has emerged in COVID-era streamed concerts in digging out a couple of smaller-scale, less often programmed pieces to put alongside a sure-fire hit.

So we had Britten’s last, tormented vocal work Phaedra and Tippett’s wonderful Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli before finishing with the banker: Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

The conductor was Sir John Eliot Gardiner (pictured below) who, in a mid-concert interview, revealed this was his first appearance with the Philharmonia since 1998 – no reasons were offered for the long hiatus. I remember a time when it was notable that JEG was venturing into 19th century repertoire, but here he was at the helm for two 20th century works, although both the Britten and Tippett are steeped in older music.Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the PhilharmoniaBritten’s Phaedra takes the form of a Handelian cantata, essentially a dramatic monologue for solo singer. It was written for Janet Baker by a seriously ill Britten in 1975 and it tells the story, in a telescoped 15 minutes, of Phaedra’s lust for her husband Theseus’s son Hippolytus, and her subsequent confession and suicide. The scoring is for string orchestra, augmented by austere percussion and an icy harpsichord (Catherine Edwards), which creates a unique soundworld.

Phaedra was sung here by Alice Coote in an engrossing performance, increasingly desperate and driven. There were subtitles on the stream but they were unnecessary: Coote’s diction was exceptionally good. The string playing was stern and unyielding, right up to the bleached final bars, and the percussion had a ceremonial severity. It is not a comforting piece, but it is extremely compelling, even if the "mad woman" trope sits slightly awkwardly in today’s world.

Before that, the Philharmonia strings had also shone in Tippett’s wonderful Fantasia, one of my absolute favourite pieces, although I can’t remember the last time it was programmed in a major London concert. Premiered in 1953, it takes as its starting point a concerto grosso by the Baroque composer Corelli, whose theme it develops in a series of variations increasingly more elaborate and complex. Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, Leader of the PhilharmoniaThe scoring divides the orchestra into soloists – here violinists Benjamin Marquise Gilmore (pictured above) and Annabelle Meare and cellist Timothy Walden – and two sub-orchestras, and through this division Tippett achieves a remarkable depth of texture and intricacy of counterpoint. Behind the soloists the music is pulsing with inner life and the soloists themselves play intricate lines like latticework, but without any suggestion of fragility. Gilmore and Meare were in close communication – but their parts are also in competition, imitating, pushing, by turns heroic and lyrical. Gardiner, who described the music as having “an un-English ardour”, found sweep in the long musical paragraphs, not underplaying the romanticism but also revelling in the astringency.

The Elgar to finish was less gripping, a good, straightforward reading of a piece that can’t fail to stir if done properly. It perhaps took a while to take flight, with the tempos quite restrained, but had charm and grace aplenty. “Nimrod” had a pleasing forward momentum – I have heard it in the past nearly grind to a halt – and variation 12, “B.G.N.” felt more like the emotional heart. Timpanist Antoine Siguré was excellent, as were the low brass in their moments off the leash, in a programme dominated by the strings.


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