London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mark Elder

Elgar

Royal Festival Hall, 7 November 2007 4 stars

Mark Elder ()

When Mark Elder became Music Director of the Hallé in 2000, he decided to reach back to the orchestra's Elgar connections - the Hallé, conducted by Hans Richter, premiered most of Elgar's orchestral compositions - and thus make the composer an important feature in the orchestra's repertoire once more. Subsequently, with successful Elgar recordings under his belt, Elder was eminently well chosen to lead the London Philharmonic Orchestra's tribute to Elgar. (It is a nice coincidence that Elder was born on Elgar's birthday.)

The concert included music which is well known (Introduction and Allegro for Strings; Variations for Orchestra on an Original Theme, better known as the 'Enigma' Variations) but also compositions which are rarely heard (Nursery Suite, The Spirit of England). While it was very interesting to hear lesser known works by Elgar, I could not help but wonder whether these pieces have been neglected for just reasons. Ironically, the well-known and well-loved pieces performed on this concert date from much earlier than the unfamiliar pieces.

The concert started with Elgar's Civic Fanfare - written for a mayoral procession in 1927 - which led directly (as on its premiere) into Elgar's arrangement of the National Anthem. The fanfare was short, brassy (with no upper strings at all) and accurately played. The Anthem had a magnificent rendering by soprano Emily Magee, the mighty London Philharmonic Choir and the full orchestra. The majority of the audience stood up, some remained seated and I was wondering why I was standing with four scores on my arm while the whole orchestra played the Anthem - seated in their regular positions - as a concert piece.

The Nursery Suite was written to celebrate the birth of Princess Margaret; it was dedicated to 'The Duchess of York and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose' in 1931. The composer conducted (the London Symphony Orchestra) at the first performance. Elgar here creates a fantasy world; as he himself said 'child-like, not childish'. Perhaps the music can be best described as dreamlike light music. According to Elder's pre-concert talk, the violin solo cadenza in this autumnal work is a farewell to Elgar the practical musician. It appears in the last (eighth) movement - 'Envoy' - and it requires virtuosity, courage and stamina. LPO leader Pieter Schoeman displayed all these qualities plus meticulous score reading with great musical sensitivity.

As Elder told us, Benjamin Britten greatly admired the last movement of The Spirit of England, Op. 80, and he planned to conduct it at Aldeburgh. In the event, the fire which destroyed Snape put a stop to Britten's plan. Elgar's setting of three poems by Laurence Binyon is a response to the First World War. Binyon's words are patriotic and heroic. Elder, soprano soloist Emily Magee and the combined forces of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus gave their all as if they loved the work. I was not sure - and perhaps neither were they - if they were moved by the words or by the music. I myself was moved by their united will to deliver a good performance.

We were on familiar ground with the Introduction and Allegro for Strings which is scored for string quartet and string orchestra (and received its first performance in 1905). I felt that the tempo of the introductory four bars (marked moderato) was a bit rushed but the rest of performance was strong, virtuosic and disciplined. The solo viola player tended to be a bit subdued but this was balanced by solo violinist Schoeman's strong and accurate musical delivery.

The Variations for Orchestra on an Original Theme ('Enigma') - as it was written in 1899, the earliest Elgar composition on the programme - received a magnificent performance. Elder not only conducted but also clearly lived every note of the score. Conducting from memory, he went on a musical journey and took the orchestra with him. The ninth variation, 'Nimrod', was brought in from the previous movement with particular sensitivity and impressed with its almost heart-breaking beauty. I was puzzled as to why the important four-note semiquaver groups in the tenth variation, 'Dorabella', were rhythmically almost distorted (especially as the movement is supposed to suggest a dance of fairy-like lightness) although accent marks - as here - can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The clarinet solo in the thirteenth variation, Romanza, was beautiful and the timpani lent masterly support. In the fourteenth variation, Finale, Elder conjured up all imaginable beauties and concluded the evening with inspiration for all. One couldn't help but go home thinking that Elgar was a great composer and that we had heard a great concert.

By Agnes Kory