Sakari Oramo's Elgar credentials are beyond reproach. With the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, he led the Elgar 150th birthday celebrations, culminating in a stunning series of all three symphonies. He didn't win the Elgar Medal - even before Andrew Davis - for nothing. It was a pleasure to hear him conduct Elgar at the Barbican London this week with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Oramo's traverse of Elgar's Symphony no 2 in E flat major (Op 63) was magisterial, emphasizing the broad sweep of ideas within. Elgar referred to the piece as "a passionate journey of the soul". With magnificent assurance, Oramo created the motif that suggests the "Spirit of Delight" in the famous quote from Shelley. For a moment it seemed that this glorious serenity might never end, yet disturbing murmurs arose from the brass. What then do we make of the tension that built up with the bristling jagged rhythms? Early audiences didn't know what to make of this most personal, and most enigmatic, of pieces. It also heralds the long years ahead when Elgar wrote relatively little.
Ostensibly, Elgar was mourning the death of Edward VII. It would be too much to expect that he might, in 1910/11, have intuited the passing of an era. But modern audiences, with hindsight, cannot help but ponder.
Whatever that "Spirit of Delight" might be, Elgar's elusive second symphony is mediation on impermanance, especially in the context of the rest of this programme, which began with George Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad Rhapsody. This, too, was written in 1911, when the confidence seemed beyond challenge. The Industrial Revolution started in Britain. A prosperous and urbanized nation ruled the world - literally - through gunboats and trade. British writers like Wordsworth led the romantic revolution in Literature. Yet, while Germans had been exploring folk culture for a hundred years, British composer and intellectuals were just beginning to seek out forgotten oral tradition. Georgina Boyes's book The Imagined Village (1993) explodes a few myths about this period, and is essential reading. Perhaps A E Housman's poems, and the novels of Thomas Hardy, reopened the long-lost mines of nostalgia.
That Oramo and the BBCSO do Elgar and Butterworth well is a given. The revelation, on this occasion, was Anna Clyne's The Seamstress, receiving its UK premiere. It's based on a poem by W B Yeats, which tells of a seamstress who embroiders a coat with many colours and images, only to have it stolen. Clyne, British born but resident in the US, adapts the sounds of Irish fiddle playing, creating a keening, other-worldly palette that evokes the past yet is surreal enough to be entirely of the present. The Seamstress unfolds in five parts, which Clyne calls "ballets" reinforcing the idea of movement and constant change. The coat is lost, perthaps stolen, but its memory, and the creative urge behind it, remain unsullied. Clyne's The Seamstress is an exceptionally beautiful piece, worth listening to over and over on repeat broadcast. Jennifer Koh's playing was sensuous and very expressive. An utterly fascinating piece and performance, perfectly attuned to the emotional spirit of Elgar 2 and Butterworth.