Saturday 3rd June 2023
The Elgar Festival Gala Concert
Worcester Cathedral ****
“One of the greatest slow movements since Beethoven”, Elgar’s publisher Augustus Jaeger (the original dedicatee of ‘Nimrod’) wrote of Sir Edward’s First Symphony – and hearing this sincere and loving performance given by the English Symphony Orchestra, sensitively shaped by conductor Kenneth Woods, it’s hard to disagree.
The slow movement is the emotional heart of this symphony and where Worcester Cathedral’s warm and resonant acoustic was of most benefit; in other movements, it proved less helpful, blurring some of the detail of Elgar’s wonderful orchestration and dulling the bite of the brass articulation.
But there was so much to admire here in terms of the playing – gutsy strings, fine solos from the woodwind and orchestral leader, and heroic horns in their delivery of the Straussian demands placed upon them. Throughout the work, Woods kept the pace flowing effectively (especially in the brooding allegro of the first movement), but never rushing passages that needed to breathe, clearly revealing his love for – and understanding of – this music.
Elgar’s very personal portrait, ‘The Music Makers’, which quotes the First Symphony along with many of his other ‘greatest hits’, formed the centrepiece of the first half. Star turn here was undoubtedly contralto soloist Jess Dandy who delivered her heartfelt contributions with a rich and honeyed tone. The Elgar Festival Chorus – eighty or so singers recruited from a selection of local choral societies – were somewhat overwhelmed sonically (both volume and diction), and not always ‘joined at the hip’ with their accompaniment either (some more ‘chorus specific’ direction from the podium might have helped), but proved to be at their best during the whispered passages.
Preceding this Elgar-fest was Michael Berkeley’s intriguing ‘Secret Garden,’ its rich tapestry of orchestral colours cleverly teasing the listener as to whether they should be in awe or in fear of the secrets within (most likely both).
Given Woods’ impassioned plea from the rostrum to speak up for music-making at a time when it’s under threat, special mention should be made of the festival’s Young Composer Competition whose winning fanfare by Samsara Prokopp proved to be a joyful concert opener.