In advance of a nationwide spate of celebration concerts, here was an all-British programme that didn’t so much as mention the Jubilee or the Olympics. And a great job the CBSO made of it, under guest conductor Andrew Manze. His expressive hands not only encouraged beautiful music, but they were a joy to watch too.

Andrew Manze © Felix Broede
Andrew Manze
© Felix Broede

In fact, part of the pleasure of live performance, in addition to the integrity of the sound and the special atmosphere, is the visual aspect. This was especially so for Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers, with Lisa Milne’s assured rendition, enhanced by facial expression and body language, injecting far more drama than a recording alone would have delivered. The song cycle was such a milestone for the young Britten, being his first full orchestral commission, that although technically Opus 8, he referred to it as his ‘real Opus 1’. A collaboration with the poet W.H. Auden, it explores the complex relationship of animals to mankind, whether as pets, pests or for blood-sports – and at a metaphorical level foreshadowing the ravages of imminent war. The political message didn’t go down well at its première in 1936, but this Symphony Hall audience seemed transfixed by the strength of the music and the virtuosity of the soprano’s interpretation. The orchestra exhibited plenty of varying colour – frantic strings depicting scurrying rodents, a drumroll preceding an earthquake, a soulful saxophone lament, the full-scale pulsating tumult of the hunt – with consummate style, but Ms. Milne stole the show and had us in the palm of her hand, particularly when singing unaccompanied. The Epilogue begins ‘Our hunting fathers told the story …’, and she certainly did just that.

There was a neat link to the preceding piece, since Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings had been sparked off by a suggestion of the composer’s friend Jaeger, otherwise known as Nimrod – the hunter – in the Enigma Variations. The idea was to create a tour de force for the strings of the newly established London Symphony Orchestra. Elgar developed the challenge in concerto grosso fashion, setting a string quartet against the full string orchestra. In Elgar’s own words there’s ‘a devil of a fugue’ and ‘all sorts of japes and counterpoint’. The result was a delight to listen to, from the first poised chords. A viola solo, evocative of singing that Elgar had heard in the Welsh hills, was beautifully executed. The ensemble playing that followed, a flurry of descending and rising scales, gathering momentum, brought to mind scampering up and down those hills. The fugue may have been a devil, but Manze had matters well under control. Symmetries within the piece meant that every now and then we seemed to be meeting an old friend again, and this feel-good factor was underlined by the final, carefully-placed tutti plucked note, which brought smiles and murmurs of appreciation all round.

The programme was rounded off with a captivating performance of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 5. It incorporates elements from The Pilgrim’s Progress, which he was composing at the same time although didn’t finish until much later. The symphony itself was completed in the darkest of times in 1943, but Vaughan Williams recognised that people didn’t need yet more angst and wrote instead a vision of peace, albeit the tranquillity is threatened here and there by means of unresolved dissonance. There’s a sense of a spiritual or moral journey, with the scherzo for example depicting a physical quest, tumbling strings and sudden brass interjections suggestive of pitfalls along the route. Throughout the piece, the shifting and contrasting tempi were expertly handled by the CBSO, drawing out maximum emotion, especially so in the Romanza, the movement in which Pilgrim rests. The heart-wrenching introductory chords virtually wept, followed by an exquisite contemplative solo on cor anglais, the highlight of the evening for me. The final movement delivered a satisfying sense of arrival and optimism, not to mention a delicious melody.

***11