The afternoon began with Bax’s lavishly orchestrated tone poem Tintagel, first conceived nearly a century ago while the composer was on holiday on the north Cornish coast. Whether viewed as a portrait of Atlantic rollers or an encapsulation of Bax’s surging passion for his inamorata Harriet Cohen, Tintagel is one of the composer’s finest creations and has remained on the fringes of the orchestral repertoire ever since its première by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in 1921. The composer’s intention to evoke “a sunny, but not windless, summer day” was amply demonstrated with this bracing performance where John Wilson steered a vigorous course that avoided all indulgence and which came to rest well within the 15 minutes of its duration as indicated in the programme. The wonderfully aspiring main theme, given out on the Philharmonia strings, was uplifting, but Wilson’s twitching baton left little room for more expansive gestures that might have better shaped the build up and release of the work’s soaring climaxes, and his account tended to emphasise the more visceral rather than sensual aspect of Bax’s seascape.

Steven Isserlis © Jean Baptiste Millot
Steven Isserlis
© Jean Baptiste Millot

“Sensual” might well apply to Walton’s Concerto for cello and orchestra which followed, and here, where Steven Isserlis joined the Philharmonia, Wilson pursued a similarly unsentimental approach. Isserlis was technically assured and unfailingly sensitive, although I detected more admiration than love for the composer’s melting lyricism. Artfully scored, Walton never allows the orchestral palette to intrude but in this collaboration the orchestra needed more presence in the opening movement and the cameo woodwind contributions sounded withdrawn and the strings too distant. The orchestra were let off the leash in the central Scherzo but, despite its nervous energy and bravura I had begun to wonder if Walton was justified in regarding this concerto as his finest. By the finale, however, conductor and orchestra had relaxed, any sense of constraint lifted and replaced by passion and exhilaration. Isserlis glowed in the opening Lento passage where elegance of line and musical intelligence combined to bewitching effect and, as if ignited by the third variation’s muscular rhythms, the Philharmonia shone and played with unrestrained zeal. Celeste and vibraphone made their exotic contribution too and left us in no doubt of Walton’s ethereal intentions beautifully fashioned by soloist and conductor.

If the closing passage of the Walton was ethereal then the opening bars of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.5 in D major were haunting; sombre horns emerging from lower strings in a perfectly judged dynamic. A well-paced Preludio unfolded with Wilson always alert to instrumental balance in the movement’s polyphony. The Scherzo was a no risks, well-behaved reading; its understated jauntiness and menace tautly controlled. Much more persuasive was the Romanza, where Wilson coaxed from the strings a warm and beguiling tone, as thrilling as I can remember anywhere before. Above this Jill Crowther’s mellifluous cor anglais floated effortlessly, and set the seal on the rest of the movement. The stillness of its ending was heart-stopping. The vision of peace and beauty that is the essence of this symphony continued without interruption right through the Passacaglia, its nobility undone only in the final bars when the ensemble unravelled in a slow motion “car crash”. Despite the rhythmic uncertainty it was a most celestial unravelling. 

****1