Elgar Concerto Weaves Its Magic

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

In his satirical comedy ‘Forty Years On’ Alan Bennett poked fun at England using the microcosm of a public school called Albion House. The jibes, japes and mockery are put on hold for one scene which is a paean to England before World War 1 – a world of lost content, of beauty and romance snuffed out in the trenches of Passchendaele. The narrator, Bennett himself, is accompanied by a musical soundtrack – the slow movement of Elgar’s violin concerto. The concerto was premiered in 1910 and in the andante Elgar distilled the quintessence of nostalgia for that lost time. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be – made grubby by the tainted fingers of cynical politicians and their spin-doctors. This wonderful performance by Vilde Frang, with the CBSO conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla showed that Elgar’s music cannot be traduced. Here it was in all its pristine glory, exuding the perfume of flowers long dead and summers long gone. Frang’s passion and love for the work was evident; her tone generous and glowing, playing supple, always in the moment but never indulging in showy gestures or rhetoric. The orchestra was on top form with horns and brass relishing Elgar’s exuberant passages. Lots of fine detail to savour too. The arresting moment when shadows loom and time stands still with the cellos thrumming and strumming guitar-style recalling a passage from the Symphony No.1 when “the ghost of some memories...makes me shiver,” as Elgar put it. Elgar is no Little Englander, his universality was celebrated by this grand sweeping performance, with a Norwegian violinist, Lithuanian conductor and the CBSO’s players from many nations. Every cheer, whistle and round of applause thoroughly merited.

The Covid-delayed series of CBSO Centenary Commissions have been musically intriguing and stimulating but none as simply pleasurable and joyful as ‘Five Polish Folk Songs’ performed by the CBSO Children’s Chorus and CBSO Youth Chorus. They were composed by Sir Andrzej Panufnik, a Musical Director of the CBSO in the 1950s, and this new arrangement by the composer’s daughter Roxanna Panufnik received its world premiere. Songs celebrating the ups-and-down, loves and losses of peasant life performed with vibrancy, spirit and exuberance by these talented youngsters. I especially enjoyed ‘Too Many Daughters’ where the line about the Lord of Manor drawing his sword had the singers unsheathing imaginary weapons. They got a thumbs up from Associate Chorus Director Julian Wilkins, showers of blown kisses from the composer and huge hurrahs from the audience. Having trudged through unseasonal snow and buffeted by arctic winds to get here, Schumann’s ‘Spring Symphony’ might have seemed like a cruel programming joke. But right from the off – the blazing brass fanfare, a seasonal wake-up call – this was a performance to enliven the spirits and thaw us out. Its rip-roaring momentum, aided by Mirga’s decision to play the movements attacca, was infectious, with enough subtle changes of pace to allow the CBSO’s wind section to entertain us with Schumann’s delicious dabs of orchestral colour.

Norman Stinchcombe

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