They say opposites attract. Elgar the conservative and Walton the iconoclast may have little in common, but they were the sole focus of the Philharmonia’s overture-free, but promising concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Such promise understandably would normally be justified by the presence of one of the most sought-after violinists on the world stage and a renowned conductor steadily ploughing through standard British repertoire when not directing Hollywood-themed programmes. The results, however, were disappointing in an evening where the true core of each work shone through only intermittently.

James Ehnes and the Philharmonia
© Mark Allan

Walton’s Violin Concerto in B minor is a richly lyrical work, spikily exuberant with jazzy syncopations. But missing from much of the first movement was its tender languor and melancholy, its poetic side largely unexplored. Orchestral tuttis made their impact and showed the Philharmonia on bracing form. James Ehnes was sweet-toned, even if somewhat poker-faced, in his communication of a work he has recorded with great distinction. A cleanly dispatched cadenza, with an impressive dynamic range, did not however compensate for the emotional detachment that dominated much of this interpretation. There was more to enjoy in the characterful second movement, its impulsiveness neatly delineated, and Walton’s Italianate colouring nicely underlined. The concluding Vivace felt laboured, romance glimpsed faintly by the soloist despite abundant technical assurance. Had John Wilson’s beat been a little more yielding, this performance might have fulfilled the potential suggested by the partnership. As an encore Ehnes wheeled out Paganini’s Caprice in G minor, very much confirming this artist's wizardry.

When I last heard Elgar’s First Symphony played by the Philharmonia I was bowled over, and it was readily apparent why Hans Richter had once declared the work as “the greatest symphony of modern times”. Here, under Wilson's baton, it was a different experience altogether and one, that at under 48 minutes, seemed determined to break all land speed records. Consequently, there was little sense of indulgence or nobilmente in the opening paragraph (nothing sepia-tinged here) and the main body of the first movement (heavily larded by too much brass), unfolded in rambunctious fashion, its magnificence hinted at but never wholly realised.

John Wilson conducts the Philharmonia
© Mark Allan

With too much suet pudding in the textures, detail was sacrificed for a forthright delivery where constituent parts lacked connective logic. More of the same impaired the mechanistic March, where Wilson’s heart-on-sleeve approach allowed brass to dominate again (trombones now loud enough to demolish small trees along the Embankment, or at least “knock 'em flat”). Its hectic drama yielded to some introspection in the Adagio, where tenderness eventually arrived in the closing pages in an emotional homecoming outlined by heart-easing strings and solo clarinet. Playing as beautiful as this had been well worth waiting for, with the Philharmonia’s expressive intensity as gripping as I can remember, and united to reveal the symphony’s confessional heart. Forward impulse returned for the finale, with themes cleanly signposted. While there might have been more give and take in Wilson’s delivery, the closing peroration was not without grandeur. Overall, this was a ‘stout and steaky’ performance, that could have been so much more.