Eckart Preu led the Spokane Symphony in an impressive and beautiful survey of British orchestral music Saturday at The Fox covering the first half of the 20th century. The evening was capped by a magnificent performance of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto by Alban Gerhardt.
Preu opened the concert with “November Woods,” Arnold Bax’s 1917 evocation of storms, both natural and emotional. Bax’s music gets too few performances nowadays, so it was revealing to hear what this former Master of the King’s Music could achieve with a Wagner-sized orchestra treated with French transparency. The music of this tone poem never rests, even in its quietest moments. Saturday there was fine solo playing from the principal woodwinds and a shivering orchestral storm, as well.
The disquiet of Bax was followed by William Walton’s “Variations on a Theme by Hindemith,” a 1963 tribute to his friend and colleague Paul Hindemith. For musicians of a certain age (mine, for instance), Hindemith is remembered as a rigorously stern academic who wrote weighty theory books and knotty music. What many listeners miss, but Walton knew and Preu discovered, was Hindemith’s wit.
Walton’s 10 variations on a tune borrowed from Hindemith’s Cello Concerto contain a jaunty tuba solo, a section featuring three bassoons plus bass clarinet, a Peter-and-the-Wolfish French horn quartet and a jazz-tinged fugue. There is serious stuff, too, like the noble brass-dominated chorale that pays tribute to Hindemith’s opera “Mathis der Maler” and the insertion of the musical notes of Bach’s name, a name venerated by both Walton and Hindemith. But it was the humor and inventive whimsy I carried away from Saturday’s performance.
Following the intermission, Preu extracted beautiful string tone for Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” the most frequently played work heard on this concert. It was easy to hear why this piece is so famous: It combines the sturdiness of English hymnody and the quirkiness of Renaissance rhythm. Vaughn Williams embeds these in rich texture employing two string orchestras and a string quartet. A quietly wonderful work excellently played
Elgar’s Cello Concerto always comes as a surprise for me and for most listeners. It has nothing of the haughty nobility of “Pomp and Circumstance” nor the nearly suffocating density of his symphonies. It is a powerful, even poignant, work whose effects are achieved with great economy of means. The young German cellist Alban Gerhardt delivered an intense, personal account of the concerto without ever lapsing into self-indulgence. The solo recitatives that introduce each of the four movements were gripping, and Gerhardt made his bow dance on the extended repeated-note figuration in the second movement. At one point his fierce pizzicato chords raised a cloud of rosin dust.
The elegiac spirit of Elgar’s Concerto was altogether appropriate to Saturday’s performance. The soloist learned earlier in the day of his mother’s death in Berlin. Johanna Gerhardt was a singer. She would have been proud of the singing tone her son brought to the lyric sections of his performance, especially in the Adagio third movement. Preu and the orchestra provided a splendid accompaniment.
Gerhardt received numerous curtain calls, and he responded with a meditative, spontaneous-sounding performance of the Prelude from Bach’s Sixth Suite for Solo Cello.
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