Friday, 3 February 2012

Delius 150th anniversary, Royal Festival Hall

London's Royal Festival Hall was packed to the rafters, with standing room only, for a concert marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Delius. It also marked one of the the rare visits of Sir Andrew Davis to the UK, in an all-English repertoire where he would be very much at home. Soloist as well as conductor would have been a draw for the capacity audience, Julian Lloyd Webber was the cellist in Delius' concerto for that instrument.

This work – which immediately preceded the interval – in fact showcased Delius at arguably his least  English, bringing out instead a more obvious comparison (as mentioned on this site before) with Debussy than with the other English composers sharing the programme. It is in fact a rather nebulous and enigmatic work which is not without some difficulties; it could be argued that ideas are introduced which are never fully developed but remain unresolved. Certainly it lacks the easy satisfaction for the listener of the popular orchestral miniatures such as Summer Night on the River or On First Hearing the Cuckoo in Spring. However the opportunity to enjoy the warm and lyrical playing which distinguishes Lloyd Webber's performance more than made up for the challenges of this rarely-heard work.

It was preceded by another very enjoyable performance, an absolutely faultless account of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. Andrew Davis struck just the right balance between a limpid tone and keeping a sense of movement in the piece, so that the lark soars, but effortlessly and gracefully. Violin soloist was the Philharmonia's leader, Zsolt-Tihamer Visontay.

The second half saw two English sets of variations; Delius being presented in his most English mode, Brigg Fair, a setting for orchestra of a folk song collected in Lincolnshire by the composer's friend Percy Grainger (whose music also features on the forthcoming Stone Records disc). This fundamentally pleasant and likeable work though was perhaps rather overshadowed by an excellent account of Elgar's Enigma Variations which followed it, a work where Andrew Davis was on very firm territory.

Expect plenty more Delius in this anniversary year: the Cello Concerto is to be repeated with the same performers at the Theree Choirs Festival at Hereford, interestingly programmed alongside Debussy's La Mer, and with Sea Drift later in the week. Other works will be included in the Cheltenham Festival and a commemorative event at Cheetham's School of Music in Manchester, where a special feature will be a concert in St George’s Hall, Bradford, Delius’ home town.

From Juliet Williams

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