The Philharmonia certainly dished up an interesting menu of British aural cuisine at the Royal Festival Hall – two masterpieces by Britten and Vaughan Williams and a newer work by Thomas Adès that seems to be heading that way. Britten and Vaughan Williams are felt to be tricky to programme together, maybe because they were poles apart in terms of temperament and vision. However, there are more connections between the two than Britten, invariably vicious about Vaughan Williams (despite the older composer’s generosity and advocacy for him), would have been happy to acknowledge. With the addition of the Adès concerto, the banquet was complete.
Thomas Adès’ Violin Concerto that followed is a work from 2005, originally written for Anthony Marwood and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Since then the piece has been performed and recorded several times internationally and has one of the few recently composed concertante violin works to have found a foothold in the repertoire. And it was easy to see why in this animated performance by Pekka Kuusisto. Stylistically closer to 20th-century violin concertos, most obviously Bartók, Szymanowski and Hindemith, as well as Britten, the work is approachable harmonically and melodically, without sacrificing itself on the altar of nostalgia.
The Philharmonia were definitely on their toes in the tricky filigree writing of the outer movements and responded passionately to the lament that is the slow movement. A problem with balance seemed to occur in the first movement where Kuusisto was swamped by the dense orchestral writing. The soloist produced a relatively small sound throughout the performance, which came off magically in his Bach encore, but seemed unbalanced in the concerto and particularly in the first movement. Elsewhere his sensitive and animated playing shone through and his obvious enjoyment in performing the piece was infectious.
After the interval, Vaughan Williams' Symphony no. 6 in E minor, written hot on the heels of the 1945 première of Peter Grimes, surpasses even his own furious violent Symphony no. 4 in its bleak outlook and prophetic sense of foreboding. It is one of the most compelling statements in the symphonic repertoire. Its greatness lies in its ability to capture the post-war atmosphere of hysterical relief, mixed with an intense anxiety about the future and, ultimately, a traumatic numbness resulting from the horrors of the war and its aftermath.
Nicholas Collon coaxed the Philharmonia to a truly terrifying performance, utilising the orchestra’s great virtuosity to push tempi and dynamics to the limit. In the disturbing first movement, with its scuttling discordant jabs, mixed in with oddly jaunty dancehall passages, and culminating with a glimpse of a pastoral idyll which is cruelly brushed aside by a tragic outburst, Collon chose driving tempi and brought a real point to the deliberately grotesque rhythms. The breathless, inevitable rush to towards the tragic conclusion was breathtaking. In the ominous slow movement, again the tempi seemed just right, keeping the music flowing towards its own bleak conclusion – here rivalling Shostakovich in its sonic impact and surpassing him in its concision. The Scherzo was played better than I have ever heard before, showing the benefits of the quick tempi combined with the ability to bring off the orchestral effects accurately.
At the end you felt as you’d attended a riotous party where no one enjoyed themselves. The predictable collapse of this results in another version of terror – a twelve-minute exercise in quiet desolation. Wispy themes float around with no purpose or resolution and in the end just dissolve. And this is where the Philharmonia showed their greatest mettle, with a sustained pianissimo which was outstanding and a final pppppp chord that was superhuman. In a performance like this, one could easily think that this symphony is one of the greatest in the repertoire – but you hear a splendid performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fourth or Fifth Symphonies and you could easily think the same.