What a surprising concert. The Handel overture re-imagined by Elgar took me back to my very first record purchase as a geeky 9 year old and Hamilton Harty’s version of the Water Music. Of course a century ago the only way this music got an audience. It was an interesting reminder of earlier times and very efficiently put across by the SSO – I think I even detected some stylishly appropriate Edwardian portamento from the strings! Sonorous wind and brass added some richly Brahmsian sounds at times. Enjoyable to hear just once, it set up Elgar’s violin concerto rather nicely, making the arresting opening theme sound almost radical.
Darrell Davison had found a very fine soloist - in fact Michael Foyle has appeared with SSO before – this time the sound he made on his Gagliano violin was even more rich, melodious and engrossing. He’s an outstanding player. Elgar often stated this was the favourite amongst his compositions despite the fact that Kreisler who inspired it never recorded it and indeed expressed considerable reservations. It is much, much more than a mere vehicle for virtuosity [this is probably what Kreisler didn’t get] and the mature considered performance we heard on Sunday was enthralling. There are huge demands for the soloist as one would expect, but also for orchestra and conductor. Rubato and its careful application are crucial to all Elgar’s music, but when accompanying a soloist there’s another element to consider. Davison was meticulous in pacing the overall structure, and had clearly spent a lot of time checking the soloist’s vision of the score and then showing the orchestra how it was to work. Foyle also worked intelligently at getting the music out past the notes and gave us so many magical and dazzling moments it’s hard to pick out one. The extraordinary orchestration of the cadenza created a superb atmosphere – orchestra and soloist working really ‘in sync’. Throughout the orchestra are so often throwing fragments into the mix they have to be spot on – they barely missed a trick. The audience, whether newcomers to it or long term fans, were enthralled and delighted by the journey we were taken on.
There was a danger of Brahms’ symphony 1 sounding like sticky toffee pudding after the complex flavours of the Elgar but the SSO treated it to a slightly restrained almost ‘classical’ approach which worked really well. The octave doublings in Brahms orchestration can make for difficulties of intonation, but with the fine SSO woodwind there was never a moments unease – glorious with the underpinning from the contrabassoon. A busy time for the strings also, Brahms is not in any way easy, it’s just as hard as Haydn or Mozart, everything shows, but there were very few moments when ensemble wasn’t comfortable and plenty where all were focussed on being one voice. After the intense concentration required for the Elgar I feared for how the Brahms would come across; it’s a piece that has huge musical and personal significance for me, I was not disappointed.