There are good performances; there are very good ones; then there are the great ones. What separates them? At the highest order, we forget that what we’re listening to is old, something really old. Instead, it lives, right now as though coming into existence in the moment. I can count on my hands (and maybe my toes) the times I’ve felt it happening in concert, and now I can add another, because Edward Gardner’s performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra of Elgar’s life affirming First Symphony at Basingstoke’s Anvil did just that. It seemed to pull the music not so much from the page, but from the air around us.

Edward Gardner conducts the Philharmonia at The Anvil © Camilla Greenwell
Edward Gardner conducts the Philharmonia at The Anvil
© Camilla Greenwell

Gardner reached up, as the Scherzo’s fierce march really hit its stride, and pointed assertively at the harps. The downward flourish with which they responded landed as though the conductor just dropped it there. He hadn't, of course. Elgar dropped it there in 1908, during an intense, exhausting spree of composing in which he found the wondrous wholeness of this symphony, a dot and dash at a time. But that’s the trick, the art of the conductor: convincing us that this thing is being made in front of our eyes and ears as we lean forward in out seats and drink it in. And just as the marks and lines, put down on the page one after another, add up to a long and rich musical story, so too these podium gestures mark out the course of how it goes on this day and place. It went swiftly, but with certainty, and it convinced. It swelled and fell back with heightened naturalness; the second-subject theme, with its complicated melody and inherent doubt, was a proper Allegro, a vigorous surge and thrust that set the stall for the choices that led Gardner’s hands through the rest.

Elgar’s music, as the late Michael Kennedy’s programme notes pointed out, is coloured by the complexities of his character – outwardly of the establishment, but inwardly disposed to solitude and self-doubt. Gardner’s Elgar, though, resounded with certainty. The glorious affirmation of the First Symphony’s conclusion wasn’t so much a victory over personal doubt, but rather the logical destination of the quiet, uncomplicated promise with which the symphony began. Likewise, the Roman episode of Elgar’s Italian sketchbook-of-a-concert-overture In the South, with its imposing and formidable statements, seemed like vivid and imaginative pictures, rather anything like a composer seeing his own darker thoughts in the landscapes and history he painted in music. Perhaps the sweeping conclusion of the piece could have scaled greater heights of relieved emotion, but not every holiday need be life changing.

Mark van de Wiel performs the première of Joseph Phibbs' Clarinet Concerto © Camilla Greenwell
Mark van de Wiel performs the première of Joseph Phibbs' Clarinet Concerto
© Camilla Greenwell

Between Elgar’s arresting orchestral canvases came something leaner, more pointed. Joseph Phibbs’ Clarinet Concerto, written for the Philharmonia’s principal, Mark van de Wiel, circles flavours of tense, atmospheric quietness and swirling agitation. Van de Wiel’s clear tone matched Phibbs’ incisive, unfussy orchestration, and if the clarinettist sounded occasionally stretched by the fiddly writing, it all added to the sense of a dangerous and exciting journey. The music strays now and then a little too close to City Noir-vintage John Adams, but ends with such a sucker punch that any doubts about the effect of its 24 minutes are gone by the time we’ve recovered. And Phibbs could ask for no more committed an ensemble to bring the new music to life than the Philharmonia, as gutsy and full bodied in sound for him as they were for Elgar’s long-lived classics.

*****