Slatkin 'introduces' Elgar's Enigmas

Classical: THE PROMS, Royal Albert Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
"Never take any piece of music for granted," said Leonard Slatkin from the rostrum at Monday's Prom, the context being an absorbing "illustrated introduction" to Elgar's Enigma Variations. I say "absorbing", which it was - provided, of course, you could actually hear what he was saying (the girl next to me couldn't hear a word). Slatkin's general thesis concerned Elgar's state of mind at the time of composing the Enigmas, the vicissitudes of his personal relationships (specifically those referred to in individual variations) and his skill at musical caricature. We heard some of his fascinating - if occasionally contentious - theories, plus a small but well-chosen roster of music examples, the most interesting being a cut- and-dried alternative ending that Elgar wisely abandoned.

Interesting, too, that for the purposes of the performance, Slatkin opted for a spatially informative but unusual orchestral layout: cellos, basses, woodwinds and horns were now to the left of the rostrum; violas to the centre, the remaining brass to the right, with proper antiphonal placing of first and second violins. This last point paid high dividends in the first variation, "CAE" (the initials, here as throughout, conceal the identity of one of Elgar's "friends pictured within"), with its busy to- ings and fro-ings between violin desks, whereas there was a nice lilt to "RBT", plenty of bucolic energy to "Troyte", a pit bull-style "GRS" and a characteristic tonal lustre in "RPA" and "BGN", both of whom responded well to Slatkin's Brahmsian exegesis. And then there was the mysterious "Romanza", a colder, more questioning and more lonely account than most I've heard in recent years.

But there was also the odd mannerism, a symptom perhaps of over-interpretation. Take, for example, the theme itself, a self-conscious, keenly attenuated affair and something of a precious preamble; or "Nimrod" (wonderfully hushed to start with) where, in honest pursuit of maximum nobility, Slatkin slowed the pace but lost the thread. Still, it was a daring vision, and the ensuing "rests" suggested that Slatkin views "Nimrod" as a sort of slow movement, with "Dorabella" as Intermezzo. The finale, though, was mightily impressive and much bolstered by the magnificent Royal Albert Hall organ.

Prior to the interval, we'd enjoyed an ebullient, albeit conservative account of Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto, where the excellent Leif Ove Andsnes braved a somewhat out-of-tune instrument - the middle and treble voices being the main victims - in pursuit of lively, supple phrasing and a nicely personalised first movement cadenza (Beethoven's own). Here, Slatkin's accompaniment was dapper, bracing and always attentive to the soloist's phrasing. However, the evening's high spot was surely its regal curtain-raiser, a warmly blended account of Paul Hindemith's Concert Music for Strings and Brass - a work that was originally commissioned by Koussevitzky for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And it was here most of all that Slatkin's predilection for smooth textures, continuity of line and powerful sonorities served to benefit the composer. In fact, the Philharmonia's string-sound frequently recalled the lustrous sheen of its Boston counterpart, while the brass - and the horns in particular - basked unashamedly in the Albert Hall's generous acoustic.

The piece itself is one of Hindemith's most inspired creations, what with its brazen fanfares, broad unison string lines and a second movement fugato that Slatkin and the Philharmonia granted a shimmering, almost Sibelian countenance. It was a notable Proms tribute to a major, though still unsung, 20th-century master, one whose birth-centenary celebrations will hopefully prompt something of a re-evaluation.

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