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Review: CBSO does Elgar’s Enigma Variations at Symphony Hall

The much in demand James Ehnes delivered a wonderful performance of Elgar at this CBSO matinee

Conductor Andrew Litton

With more than a touch of high drama, the CBSO’s programme-order for this matinee concert had to be hastily rearranged, thanks to a crisis up the road at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

The soloist announced for that evening’s RLPO broadcast of the Brahms Violin Concerto, live on BBC Radio 3, was indisposed, and the hunt was on for a replacement. And at 12pm the call came to James Ehnes, begging him to play as a stand-in.

Slight problem, though. Ehnes was about to play the Walton Violin Concerto with the CBSO during the afternoon, so the solution was for the Walton to be placed first in the running-order, thereby giving Ehnes as much time as possible to get himself to Liverpool– and in fact he only learned the evening performance was to be broadcast live when conductor Andrew Litton made an explanatory announcement from the podium.

Whatever thoughts of the Brahms were in his head, Ehnes delivered a wonderfully poignant, soul-searching account of the Walton, his rich, full tones seamlessly singing with resigned regret (despite a waspish, brilliantly-bowed attempt at heady escapism), and Litton and the CBSO reciprocated with arching phrasing and piquant interjections.

What should have opened the concert then followed, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge the showcase for a CBSO string section on top form, adept in the young composer’s brilliant compendium of styles and techniques.

Britten’s musical characters were followed by the human characters of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Litton’s reading was refreshingly unsentimental (thank you for such an honest, unaggrandised Nimrod) but always tender.

Tempi flowed easily, and instrumental solos (including new-boy principal clarinettist Oliver Janes) emerged naturally from an orchestral texture shaped by Litton with remarkable clarity, and with the capacity to command breathtaking pianissimos (not least the timpanist in the Romanza).

Elgar for the English? The hands of this American proved otherwise; Malvern’s favourite son is universal.

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