I was looking forward to this concert, not so much for the programme – I lost touch with all of these pieces in my youth – but for tonight’s conductor, David Hill. I know him for some truly excellent performances, mostly choral music and for a very fine Mahler 2 at Winchester Cathedral, the offstage ensemble of which has never been surpassed for me since. And in truth, tonight’s performance exceeded my expectation by quite some margin. It really was an outstanding concert.
I first discovered Vaughan Williams at just fourteen, when topically with regard to tonight’s performance, he knocked Elgar’s Enigma Variations well into the second spot in my top ten. I hear your ‘guffaws’ but remember I was fourteen and the sheer immediacy and urgency of this piece is appealing. Hill’s version was not only flawless, but in many ways original. He dispenses with the idea of a ‘tonal echo’ by lengthening violins, having absolute control over timing and for me it was truly breathtaking. ‘Control’ was dominant, from fortissimo through decrescendo to pianissimo. The result took me right back to bedroom and my imagination for this piece being a background to the very murder of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The music fits the scene so very well, and of course was revisited during Tudor times.
The Cello Concerto for me is one of Elgar’s greatest works. We are told that it had a disastrous premiere due to being under-rehearsed. Be that as it may, it is not a difficult piece for the orchestra, and in spite of its beautiful simplicity I also think it was ahead of its time in affording both prominence and emotional intensity to the soloist. Indeed, the orchestra only achieves any kind of dominance in the fourth movement – almost symphonic in the way it reiterates previous thematic material. This performance was stunning, compelling and virtuosic, but the truth is when this piece is played well, it leaves a dignified dullness, much in the way that the war poets do – a point exemplified here by the finely sculpted but severe ending. Bravo to a superlative and emotionally draining performance by Tim Hugh who explored with tenacity and courage the darker corners of this fine piece.
Speaking of control, the Enigma Variations – as the piece has come to be known – absolutely demands it. Indeed it is ‘control’ that distinguishes good orchestras from mediocre, and by a large measure mediocre from amateur. In some ways I suppose a good metaphor would be a rock concert. I’m sure many have been to both good and bad, and the phrase ‘together’ comes to mind. Enigma is no different; it demands tremendous concentration, dexterity and ‘togetherness’.
In spite of Hill’s wonderful dancing during this piece (worth the ticket money alone!), he never went faster than the orchestra could deliver and never lost even a minuscule amount of control, at times he was like a fine swordsman with an épée: all balance and perfection. The orchestra were magnificent by return. It would be wrong to pick out standout performances here, every musician fitted together like a 100 piece jigsaw.
But if I had to choose a moment in tonight’s concert, it would be the fabulous interplay between the Leader Amun Merchant and the principal Viola Tom Beer during the Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia; contemporary supreme virtuosity and future supreme virtuosity combined in superb richness of playing.