MUSIC / Moved by waves: RPO / Handley - Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
A RECENT recording by Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of music by Granville Bantock reminded some that for all its unevenness, this composer's large output contains music of real power and individuality. It has been some 50 years since his work was regularly before the concert public and in the interim there has not been the kind of promotion that has resurrected the work of such as Bax and Moeran, composers who share something of Bantock's style.

In fact, Handley and the RPO's interpretation of the Hebridean Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday evening was very likely the first live performance since the composer's death in 1946, and one was tempted to ask why such an evocative and ebullient score had not been rescued before now.

Like Bax, Bantock was drawn to things Celtic, in his instance the myths and landscape of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and the Hebridean Symphony encapsulates this vision, combining nature music of great poetic immediacy with a picturesque gift for suggesting legendary action. Its single movement, cogently structured, links episode to episode with considerable symphonic craft, opening in sea-calm and climaxing with an overwhelming suggestion of stormy waters. This latter section has been considered the trumpet player's nightmare, since they have to sustain a lip-splitting ostinato while the rest of the orchestra rages around. In performance it makes a spectacular effect and it was managed splendidly here.

As so often in the past when dealing with unjustly neglected examples of our native late-Romantics and early-Moderns, Handley drew a not merely dutiful performance, but an inspired one. Indeed throughout the evening the orchestra performed with greatest sympathy and virtuosity. The textural complexities of Bax's The Garden of Fand, for instance, were elucidated with poetic insight, and the undercurrents of the scoring, suggesting a wave-like motion, could be heard in all their luxuriant detail.

With Kathryn Stott in magnificent form, Britten's Piano Concerto was given a reading that very nearly banished doubts about its uneven invention. Stott threw off Britten's marvellously conceived keyboard textures with commanding bravura and was as concentrated in lyric repose as in display.