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Elgar Week

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
01/24/1999 -  
Sir Edward Elgar: Introduction and Allegro, Cello Concerto
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony #7

Steven Isserlis (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

Today marked a significant double premiere at Lincoln Center. The first annual series of visits from the London Symphony coincided with the inauguration of the main series of concerts entitled The Glory of Britain: Sir Edward Elgar, part of the Great Performers Series. The week will be filled with Elgarian events, from symposia and chamber concerts to several LSO presentations of the works of Elgar and Beethoven. A nebulous connection exists between the two composers, stemming from a misguided Shavian concept that Sir Edward was the rightful heir of the German master (and the antidote to the evils of Brahms and Mahler). In any event the presence of the LSO is significant as Elgar was its principal conductor in 1912 and both of tonight's pieces by the great Englishman were premiered by this fine assemblage.

The Introduction and Allegro is scored for string quartet and string orchestra and was written when the LSO had recently broken away from the pool of London orchestras to form its own permanent organization. That marvelous wistful quality so common in the music of the British renascence is intermingled with Scottish folk melodies and an inventive fugue to produce a twentieth century concerto grosso that would be emulated by the Swiss Ernest Bloch. The sound of the LSO strings is full-bodied (although perhaps a little heavy on the bass) and fit the lusty interpretation of Sir Colin, a true expert in this music not often heard in America.

It takes a lot of gut to perform a piece so closely associated with one of the immortals of your instrument, but Steven Isserlis is not deterred by his reverence for the late Jacqueline Du Pre. His performance of the Cello Concerto (currently known as the "Hilary and Jackie" song) is consciously different from Ms. Du Pre's passionate version that he listened to thousands and thousands of times as he was growing with his instrument. No other piece in my memory is so totally "owned" by one performer as the Elgar by Ms. Du Pre and Mr. Isserlis, a scholarly lad, has wrestled with the Jackie problem and has publicly stated that he wanted to interpret the piece significantly differently. This he surely does from the opening cadenza which he takes as an elegantly quiet meditation diametrically opposed to Ms. Du Pre's amazing descent into the abyss of despair. Throughout his is a thoughtful performance, quite impressive technically in the fast passages and maintaining a quiet dignity and a very thin tone. Unfortunately no one seems to have briefed Sir Colin, who pushed his forces into blaring fortissimi more suited to Jackie's uninhibited psychedelic style and causing some of the most impressive passagework of the soloist to be drowned in LSO tutti, an experience reminiscent of one of New York's wonderful outdoor concert venues, where invariably during the soft passages a fire engine roars by. Undaunted, Mr. Isserlis remained consistent in his restrained interpretation, although his choice of cello and technique produced such a quiet sound that it was really not proportionate to the cavernous acoustics of Avery Fisher. Although this was an interesting performance, the inevitable comparisons to Du Pre leave one wondering where the embers died. I am curious to hear Mr. Isserlis in any other piece, where the baggage of his quest for individuality would be left behind.

Beethoven has been the subject of so much revisionism in recent years that it was a real pleasure to enjoy a fine performance of a great symphony by a large, thoroughly modern orchestra blissfully unencumbered by period instrument "authenticity". This is the way we all grew up enjoying Beethoven and I for one am delighted that there are still ensembles playing the classics in the bombastic, Romantic style. The first movement showed off the fine articulation of this great orchestra, particularly the trumpets and the horns who have some of the most difficult high notes in the entire literature at the end of this exciting introduction.

I would have liked to hear more sorrow and anguish in the second movement and was perturbed by the quick tempo of that unbelievable main theme, but Sir Colin still built a good deal of tension after a somewhat shaky start. The third movement was spectacularly adroit and the finale, the "apotheosis of the dance", was positively thrilling and swirling in a way I haven't heard since von Karajan. The ending was taut and produced an immediate roar of approval. This orchestra is of a very high quality and apparently in very capable hands.

The Elgar series is a great start to a new relationship between the LSO and New York. I hope that music of other British composers will be featured in future as the great works of Vaughn Williams and Britten, among others, are still relatively unknown on this side of the pond.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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