Music for Midsummer Review

Music for Midsummer

Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra

Elspeth Poole, cello

Norman Nelson, conductor

Alix Goolden Performance Hall
June 26, 2010

By Deryk Barker

Before August 1914, the central feature of every English village green was its maypole. After 1918, it was the war memorial. The rest of Europe was, of course, similarly traumatised.

Although “The Great War” was to cast its shadow over the rest of the twentieth century – reading a history of the events of mid-1914 is a sobering experience, with its litany of all-too-familiar places: Serbia, Bosnia, Sarajevo. However, I can only think of a single great musical work which is clearly a reaction to that cataclysmic event: Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

The first half of Saturday evening’s concert closed with a stunning performance of what is, for me, the greatest of all concertante works for the instrument. Elspeth Poole gave a most eloquent and virtuosic account of the solo part, with immaculate intonation, fine tone and a maturity beyond her relatively tender years. From the dramatic opening gesture to its deeply poignant return at the work’s close she did not put a foot – of rather, a finger – wrong.

Norman Nelson and the Sooke Philharmonic provided an accompaniment fully worthy of their soloist, with excellent coordination in rubato passages. Despite the occasional minor hiccup, the orchestra played extremely well – so well, in fact, that I was reminded several times of just how great an orchestrator Elgar was.

My only quibble is that I am not entirely conviced that this really was “Music for Midsummer”.

In 1870 Brahms wrote to Hermann Levi: “I’ll never get a symphony written. You have no idea of how it feels to hear a giant’s footsteps behind you!” After several aborted attempts to compose a symphony – one of which metamorphosed into the first piano concerto – Brahms’s Symphony No.1 was finally completed in 1876 – its composer was forty-three – and was promptly dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth” and the main theme of its finale compared to the Ode to Joy.

Brahms was not amused.

It may be fanciful, but I might almost suggest that Nelson intended the famous opening passage to bring to mind those “giant’s footsteps”. Certainly David Masini’s pounding timpani and Nelson’s unyielding tempo sounded menacing enough, but it was the sheer, almost overpowering intensity of the playing which made me sit up and take notice.

Surely, I though to myself, they cannot keep up this level of intensity through the entire work. And of course, they didn’t – nor should they have; to do so would have done severe damage to the musical fabric.

Nelson brought off a quite magical diminuendo and decelerando at the close of the introduction before launching into a brisk allegro (sans exposition repeat, but I’d forgive almost anything in a performance like this). The orchestral sound was full and resonant, with the contrabassoon (an instrument of whose “bovine flatulence” Brahms seems to have been been inordinately fond) making its inimitable and essential presence felt in the hands of Cuyler Page.

The more than usually cohesive second movement opened with fine string tone and exquisite winds; the third-movement intermezzo was commendably fluid.

The finale opened ominously, the accelerando pizzicato passage was superbly done and the brass chorale (with contrabassoon) sounded glorious. The “big tune” – as Brahms remarked, “only a donkey” would think it similar to Beethoven – was taken at a flowing tempo and brought some lush playing from the violins.

Then came that moment, the hurdle at which so many conductors stumble: the transition from the statement of the theme into the main body of the movement. There is no accelerando marked and none necessary, yet the overwhelming majority of performances I’d heard insert one. Given the volatility of Nelson’s conducting – and I mean that in the most complimentary sense possible – I was quite prepared for him to go along with the herd.

I should have given him more credit.

From then on the finale flew by, it seemed, in a heartbeat, building to the white heat of the final pages, where Nelson screwed up the tension inexorably and masterfully.

In the (brief) silence which followed the final notes, I heard a voice from behind me echo the last word I had written in my notebook: “Wow!”.

The evening opened with a marvellously contoured performance of Mendelssohn’s overture The Hebrides, also (better?) known as “Fingal’s Cave”.

Too often events keenly anticipated – as I did this one – tend to disappoint.

I have yet to be disappointed by Nelson and the Sooke Phil. A truly magnificent evening.

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