There's one thing you can say about Elgar: he is definitely not all pomp and circumstance. As Edward Gardner and the Philharmonia Orchestra teamed up again for an occasional foray into Elgar, they performed his majestic and complex Second Symphony along with pieces by Mozart and Beethoven, forming a neat programme where each composer had a significant influence on the next.

Edward Gardner © Benjamin Ealovega
Edward Gardner
© Benjamin Ealovega

Opening with Mozart's overture to The Magic Flute, this was mature Mozart at its best. The opera itself is steeped in masonic symbolism mixed with plenty of humour, both of which are also revealed in the overture. Gardner is an authoritative conductor, with a clear sense of collaboration and teamwork and a keen eye for the overall shape of a piece. The orchestra embraced this overture with enthusiasm and, after a slightly hesitant opening passage, they quickly settled into a full and vibrant performance. There were nice light touches in the middle sections, with articulate winds and crisp strings, and the conclusion was confident and uplifting.

Martin Helmchen's interpretation of Beethoven's less frequently performed Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major was like a breath of fresh air. He has a natural and unaffected style, which resulted in a sparkling and illuminating performance. The concerto pre-dated the First and the influence of Haydn and Mozart is clearly heard. Helmchen was attentive in creating contrasts between the more delicate episodes and some of Beethoven's more characteristic oomph. 

There was some fine interplay between piano and orchestra, with Gardner and the Philharmonia providing sensitive support and producing a wonderful tone, notwithstanding a minor sense of dragging in the opening phrases of the first movement. Helmchen's cultured playing of the cadenza in this movement was impressive, and he brought out the variety in mood and tempo to great emotional effect. There is a curious dynamic here because the concerto is noticeably Mozartian, but this cadenza, which was written much later and is musically more progressive, is all Beethoven. The second movement was beautifully played, with an ethereal sense of lyricism in the legato passages and phrases left hanging delicately in the air. Both soloist and orchestra navigated the jaunty rondo finale effortlessly and with frivolity, Helmchen's fingers precise and gossamer-like over the keyboard. 

Elgar's Second Symphony is a complex work, both musically and emotionally. It is dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII, and has been considered to be a farewell to the opulence and imperialism of the Edwardian era. But, as is typical of Elgar, there are a number of personal associations that had a more direct influence on the work, such as the inspiration from close friends and from his visits to Venice and Tintagel. He described the symphony as "the passionate pilgrimage of a soul" and said that it symbolised everything that had happened to him during the period of its composition.

The first movement introduces a theme which permeates the whole symphony, for which Elgar cites Shelley: "Rarely, rarely, comest thou Spirit of Delight". The ambiguity of whether this means the presence or absence of such a spirit is reflected through the tensions between different emotional states. Gardner and the Philharmonia excelled. From the beginning of the first movement, they were immediately thrusting into Elgar's complex tapestry of musical themes without ever sounding clunky and disconnected, which is all too common in performances of Elgar's larger-scale works. There was plenty of passion, and the orchestra mastered the more complex, difficult passages admirably. In the funereal second movement, Gardner wrung every ounce of emotional energy from the strings, and winds and brass were majestic, with a particularly fine oboe solo as its haunting lament flowed expressively over pulsating rhythms. An eerie sheen was created, and the ebb and flow of the music was expertly crafted, with emotionally draining climaxes.

The opening of the third movement was vibrant and restless, and the pastoral theme that followed was interrupted by a most extraordinary and disturbing outburst. For this, Elgar referenced a Tennyson poem about a fantasy of a hero's burial, and suggested that the percussion should "gradually drown the rest of the orchestra". Gardner and the Philharmonia created an appropriate balance of agitation and calmness, although, if anything, the percussion could have been even more aggressive. The opening theme of the finale was noble and full of hope, and the strings played with rich and warm tones throughout whilst the brass were regal and sharp. The closing pages were performed quite beautifully, their serenity creating a cathartic effect culminating in a peaceful ending. Gardner is certainly proving to be a very fine Elgarian.

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