On his first concert with the Philharmonia since 1998, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, curated a programme of English music which went against the grain for this master of the authentic performance style. The music of Tippett, Britten and Elgar have rarely appeared in his concert diary or recordings.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Philharmonia

The Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli sees Tippett combining Baroque clarity of line with 20th-century complexity, through the prism of big-hearted lyricism. The result is entirely personal and alluring to the listener. Tippett, like Vaughan Williams, was able to find an atmosphere of lyrical ecstasy which is never sentimental or nostalgic. He found this golden place in virtually all his works, even the thorniest. In the Fantasia there are several such moments, leading to the exquisite Adagio section, which was aptly used in Peter Hall’s beautiful film, Akenfield. Gardiner set a very conservative tempo from the off. This had the effect of softening the 1950s edges and emphasising the lyricism, which is only half the story. A moving account of the work nevertheless. 

Alice Coote and the Philharmonia
© Philharmonia

Britten wrote his cantata Phaedra for Dame Janet Baker at the end of his life. In its concise retelling of Racine's play about forbidden love, it is one of the composer's most effective works. By this point, Britten was seen as old-fashioned with nothing new to say. Tippett, who had taken to embracing modern idioms more, was seen as the more significant composer. Indeed, Phaedra doesn’t say anything new and doesn’t see a development in musical language. However, it does have an accuracy and directness of emotional truth which Britten rarely finds. It was also superbly written for Baker’s passionate voice, and Alice Coote made it her own here. Replacing lofty crumbling pride with human vulnerability and strength of resolve, Coote was totally mesmerising, as well as being vocally secure and tonally dramatic.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations is his most rounded and technically brilliant orchestral work. Alongside the Cello Concerto, it is the work that most keeps his name alive in concert halls internationally. It is the product of a man still lacking in confidence in his own worth, who finds strength in having his friends around him. The musical portraits he creates have charm, wit and genuine emotional insight. Only in the slightly overblown finale, a self-portrait, do you feel a hint of something less authentic. But then, is this Elgar laughing at himself?

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Philharmonia
© Philharmonia

In his interpretation of the variations, Sir John again emphasised the lyrical aspects of the score, sometimes at the cost of forward movement. The Philharmonia were superb in every department; the strings wonderfully translucent, the woodwinds rich in their solos and ensembles, the brass rounded and never overpowering. Nimrod had the necessary poise, but the delicate tenth variation that followed (Dorabella), was almost more moving is its understated winsomeness. The finale had all the pomp and circumstance required, holding back enough to prevent it from sounding grandiloquent. 

This performance was reviewed from the Philharmonia Orchestra's video stream