CLASSICAL MUSIC Elgar / Slatkin RFH, SBC, London

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The Independent Culture
Perhaps it has something to do with that curious word nobilmente, but the world, it seems, still has problems getting beyond the received view of Elgar, purveyor of pomp and circumstance and the stiff upper lip. At first sounding of the First Symphony's stately motto theme, you can almost hear the groan of resistance from beyond these shores. Perhaps the prejudices are just too deeply entrenched, but conductors as distinguished as Solti, Barenboim, Previn, and Slatkin have so far failed to persuade the world that Elgar is much, much more than a national treasure. That Elgar travels.

But the trick is to keep trying, and in the process to challenge our own prejudices and preconceptions as to how this music really goes. To keep reassessing it. The winds of change blew vehemently through Leonard Slatkin's volatile reading of the First Symphony last Thursday night. The proud but beleaguered motto theme weathered an unusually rough ride to emerge triumphantly cresting the waves of euphoria that break across the barlines of Elgar's spectacular coda. It was a risky and hectic reading of a tempestuous and - make no mistake - troubled score, the fastest music very fast, the slowest very slow. The "higher ideals" that Elgar spoke of were striven for here against a backdrop of extreme disquiet. The great easing of the heart over the final pages of the slow movement, for instance, was a long time coming, fading to black by way of the palest of pale clarinets. And when we did finally see the light in that glorious transformation of the finale's march theme - the moment, if you like, when the military commander turns pacifist - it seemed almost too good to be true. The Philharmonia were in earnest for Slatkin, their soon-to-be-confirmed principal guest conductor, but even they were sporadically caught off-guard by the cut and thrust of it all. Still, at least we were thinking Elgar and not English.

So were we thinking oratorio or opera for The Dream of Gerontius on Sunday? Well, for sure, when Elgar's demons descended to feast on human souls, Slatkin's theatricality peaked in some headlong Hallowe'en-like pyrotechnics. Too fast for these forces to articulate keenly (despite a smallish Philharmonia Chorus), but pulse-raising all the same. For the rest, though, Justin Lavender's account of the title role was some indicator as to what was missing overall. Lavender might have taken his cue from Slatkin's shapely phrasing of the prelude, from leader Hugh Bean and his section in rapt ascendancy, unanimous portamenti lending lustre. But he didn't. Here is a young, thoroughly modern lyric tenor (allergic, it would seem, to portamento and time-honoured head-voice effects) with a fine vocal reach. But the words - their colour, their drama, their portent - are not finding expression in the sound. It's one sound, one colour. Contrast Catherine Wyn-Rogers, whose experience now fills and informs every phrase - maternal in the best sense, "softly and gently" leading us to the Wagnerian twilight of the final page. But maybe that's it, maybe it was all too secular, maybe it lacked religious ecstasy. If your heart doesn't leap - truly leap - with that great concerted cry of "Praise to the Holiest", then something, somewhere is failing to move in mysterious ways.