Monday saw the latest in BBC Radio 3’s mildly self-indulgent “themed” days, this one being devoted to portraits in music -- and Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations was the obvious choice to crown the evening’s live broadcast by the BBC Concert Orchestra from Birmingham Town Hall.
The concert was a jolly affair, with the audience obviously enjoying its free entertainment, spontaneously applauding between movements (the absence of any printed programmes possibly adding to uncertainty), welcoming conductor Barry Wordsworth back to the city where he presided for so many years of Birmingham Royal Ballet, and lapping up the genial compering of Alistair McGowan, impressions and all.
McGowan’s introduction to the Variations was indeed masterly and sensitive, ushering in a reading which flowed with deeply-felt, loving detail (I’d love to hear Wordsworth conduct Elgar’s ‘Falstaff’) and displayed so many of the strengths of this fine orchestra (particularly lovely flutes and solo string work). And the stirrings of the Town Hall organ in the finale brought the icing on the cake for many.
We had begun with Eric Coates’ ‘Three Elizabeths’, a flawed work (Elizabeth I sparkles with metrocentric sophistication, our own Elizabeth seems to be tripping out of “Workers’ Playtime”), but one which in ‘Springtime in Angus: Elizabeth of Glamis’ pours out a melody too beautiful for anyone to warrant, not even the Queen Mother of blessed memory.
Virgil Thomson’s ‘La Guardia Waltzes’ were well-crafted sludge which mercifully didn’t go on too long, and Copland’s properly home-spun ‘Lincoln Portrait’ was a sad case of what might have been. This deeply sincere score was delivered eloquently by Wordsworth and his orchestra, but the equally eloquent narration of actor Stuart Milligan was often drowned by the music.
Listeners at home will have had the benefit of better balance from the BBC’s phalanx of microphones. They will also not have had to put up with the sight of members of a particular section of the orchestra laughing and chatting in full public gaze as their colleagues were playing.