On the one hand, nothing to frighten the horses too much, with Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Steven Isserlis as the main crowd-puller in tonight’s concert from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard. But it’s surprising how seldom these days that Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, the works bookending the concerto, actually appear on the concert stage. The combined three works spanning just 25 years of the first half of the 20th century made for a weighty yet stylistically broad and satisfying programme.

Steven Isserlis © Satoshi Aoyagi
Steven Isserlis
© Satoshi Aoyagi

Britten extracted the Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes, and they make a striking and successful stand-alone orchestral suite. However, as the Interludes occur at different points in the opera, and inhabit such different moods, Dausgaard’s choice of performing them attacca was curious, causing an unwelcome jolt as we shifted from one mood to the next – particularly from “Moonlight” to “Storm”. The opening movement, “Dawn”, with exposed high-pitched strings and flutes trying to match their rhythms, is a challenge, and the ensemble here was not entirely secure to begin with. However, once proceedings were underway, this was a suitably atmospheric reading, with dark brooding horns threatening turbulence to come. “Sunday Morning” also suffered with a few slightly rocking rhythms, unintentionally adding to the sense of sea-sickness, and there was some marginally tardy brass in places, but there was some excellent woodwind playing here (a feature of the evening), weaving around the viola and cello theme. The harp and flutes added their pings with great precision in “Moonlight”, before “Storm” abruptly swept this all away. It was, however, an appropriately scary and wild storm, with much tighter rhythmic energy and a truly frightening final descent into the swirling depths.  

Isserlis’ Elgar was commanding, intense and passionate, and his presence and audience communication was engaging. A greater sense of communication with the orchestra would have added to this – the only time this really happened was when he joined the tutti cello section. At other times, the orchestra were really following Isserlis, with Dausgaard bringing up the rear. But the strings sensitively matched Isserlis’ opening pianissimo, and the passionate tutti outbursts when they came were powerful and heartfelt. The finale’s off-kilter march had just the right amount of swagger, and the return of the opening theme added that final note of poignancy before the race to the final, emphatic three chords.  

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances was his final composition, just three years before his death in 1943. In the finale, he uses both his favourite device, the Dies Irae chant, but also a quote from his All-Night Vigil, writing the text “Hallelujah” in the score at that point. He also ends his manuscript with thanks to God. Yet this is by no means a simple triumph of light over darkness, and the ending is far from conclusive. In the opening movement, Rachmaninov quotes his first symphony, the painful failure of which he had held with him ever since. Having destroyed the score, he must have assumed this quote would not be spotted, little knowing that the symphony would be revived and established in the repertoire. The first thing to say about tonight’s performance is the exceptional quality of the woodwind playing throughout. With much solo work, as well as extensive ensemble passages, the entire section was as sharp as a pin tonight. There is of course the famous alto saxophone solo in the first movement, and this was performed with warmth and clarity, but without overindulgence. The bass clarinet also has a significant role to play, as well as a brief conversation between cor anglais and oboe in the central movement, and all players rose to the occasion, yet without ever overegging their moment.

Overall, rhythmic precision was much tighter than earlier in the evening, and Dausgaard brought out the jazzy rhythms of the opening movement, allowing himself a little dance on the podium. The middle waltz, with its echoes of Ravel’s La Valse, was full of sway and swagger, although it is difficult for this movement not to dip a little in energy as Rachmaninov does wander a little here. The finale’s battle between the Dies Irae, blasted through the tutti texture by the full horn section towards the end, and the more hopeful “Hallelujah”, had power and passion, and Dausgaard allowed the final ring of the gong to hang in the air, adding to the sense of mystery and uncertainty. Despite Rachmaninov’s final comment on his score, has resurrection really triumphed over death here? I’m not convinced the music says this, and that final gong leaves a hanging question in the air. Perhaps Dausgaard agrees, as this was not as emphatic a conclusion as some, but an intelligent and engaging reading of this somewhat underrated score.