MUSIC A mystery lost in an enigma

Elgar RCM / Festival Hall
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The Independent Culture
The BBC Symphony Orchestra opened its "Elgar: The Music Maker" series at the Royal College of Music on Thursday with an intriguing coupling of three less familiar Elgar items - orchestral arrangements of his Severn Suite and of Chopin's Funeral March, and his Romance for bassoon and chamber orchestra - and the first hearing in 100 years of Hubert Parry's early Piano Concerto in F sharp.

A number of Parry's majorworks have recently been resurrected on record, and he no longer seems the merely shadowy contemporary of Elgar he once was. Even so, this work, boldy structured, vigorous in invention, bravely assertive - and predating Elgar's first successes by at least 15 years - made a surprising impact.

While we can hear in the piece such contemporary models as Liszt and Brahms, the influences are nearly always assimilated, revealing even at this early stage something of Parry's mature character, robust, open-hearted and radical. The piano writing, moreover, is superbly idiomatic. No English amateurism here.

The work is characterised by an unforced breadth of structure, frequently carried by arching lyric spans. Those qualities were marvellously caught both by Piers Lane, totally committed in the big-boned solo part, and by Charles Peebles, who drew vigorous playing from the BBCSO.

Earlier, Andrew Davis had done the Elgar pieces proud, and he was no less impressive at the Festival Hall on Monday, when Elgar was represented by two of his greatest works, Falstaff and the Enigma Variations. The compositional virtuosity of Falstaff was dazzlingly unfolded, its interlocking sections sharply individuated, yet welded into one sweeping arch. In Enigma, too, individual links in the chain were most touchingly characterised, yet enhanced by their place in the broader scheme; the BBCSO created the loveliest of sonorities.

In between came the premiere of David Sawer's Trumpet Concerto, its tautly dramatic shape based upon the mythical fight between Hercules and Antaeus. Just as Hercules defeated his opponent by lifting him off the earth from which he gained his strength, so Sawer's trumpet lifts the orchestra to the top of its range, where it eventually dies. It's an intriguing textural idea and works neatly in terms of Sawer's violent instrumental images. Graham Ashton brought vitality to the solo role, while Davis and his orchestra struggled manfully.

Anthony Payne