This was scheduled to be Edward Gardner’s final appearance as principal guest conductor of the CBSO, but the happy news is that his tenure has been extended, with some remarkable goodies promised for next season.
And this particular concert was a remarkable example of Gardner’s talents, generously applauded by the orchestra (timpani sticks have never been so eloquent), and a wonderful piece of all-English programming.
The Elgar-devoted first half of the evening began with a Cockaigne overture which charmed and rose above its hackneyed swagger. It began nimbly, bright and breezy, and ranged from veiled string ruminations to Meistersingerish (Gardner’s recent triumph at English National Opera) pageantry, and the whole seemed like smiling chamber-music writ on a large canvas. Particular plaudits to the tellingly taut timpani-playing.
Alban Gerhardt was soloist in the Cello Concerto, eschewing any of the mannerisms which have crept into traditional readings and instead grasping the work by the notes themselves. The opening tugged itself out of despair and moved towards desolate resignation, and, for all the rubato empathetically matched by Gardner’s orchestra, there was always an underlying sense of pulse and seamless flow.
Gerhardt revealed plenty of intricate detail along this sad journey of introspection, aggressive pizzicati railing against the music’s sense of loss, and indeed intensifying emotional links with Elgar’s Violin Concerto.
The spirit of Elgar’s Sospiri hovered over Frank Bridge’s Lament for Strings which opened the second half, wispy string solos hovering over the music’s deep sense of grief. The BBC were broadcasting this live, and I hope this miniature will be preserved on CD.
As certainly should be the amazing performance of Tippett’s Second Symphony which followed. From its pounding, Stravinskyan opening, upper strings dancing so joyously, through the hieratic gestures of commanding horns, the Midsummer Marriage timbres of piano, harp and visionary solo strings, this was a confident, cogent account, Gardner attuning his orchestra perfectly to Tippett’s idiosyncratic soundworld.
And this performance didn’t break down, unlike the BBC Symphony Orchestra premiere under no less a luminary than Sir Adrian Boult. And its conclusion here was utterly fabulous.