Last week from Detroit it was knockout Walton: this time magnificent Elgar. His First Symphony was preceded by Beethoven, a solemnly eloquent (with nicely expressive swells) then dashing (while remaining articulate) account of the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, a ballet score, following which Emanuel Ax joined the DSO and Leonard Slatkin for the B-flat Piano Concerto.
No.2, the ‘Cinderella’ among Beethoven’s numbered Piano Concertos – written before if published after No.1, and not forgetting an even earlier example in E-flat – found Ax is sparkling form. A sprightly and graceful DSO introduced Ax, and his first entry set the scene – elegant, clear and dynamic playing that reminded just how good this piece is, so inventive and beguiling, especially when given time to express itself and when the partnership between pianist and conductor (long-time collaborators) is so productive. Ax made much of the added-later cadenza and he went on to mine fully the slow movement of its profundity – spaciously taken if with natural ebb and flow and sounded warmly by the DSO, oboes particularly poetic – and crowned a thoroughly enjoyable account with a robust Finale, rhythmically foot-tapping and also with a smile lurking.
Ax’s encore was very welcome, a flowing Chopin Mazurka, given without obvious sentiment, yet so communicative and with a nice line in finding a quiet dynamic that added to the poignancy.
As for the Elgar, well, Slatkin has known it a long time, and made a recording, and his experience showed. Ideally balancing semplice and nobilmente at the opening, a generous muse established itself immediately. The main Allegro was full of energy and also the all-important flexibility that relates the fantasy element to the music of Robert Schumann, Elgar’s true Germanic counterpart, according to Anthony Payne, he who made something tangible from Elgar’s sketches for his Third Symphony. This was gripping stuff, the DSO enthused by and sympathetic to music that probably doesn’t come its way too often, at-one with Slatkin to the hilt and his mastery of Elgar’s line, details and fluctuations.
The Scherzo was the Devil itself, a fast tempo negotiated brilliantly, with what might be described as Trio sections scurrying surreptitiously yet yielding and anticipating the slow movement – its beginning a masterpiece of same-note recycling! – and what beauty there is here as Elgar conjures something transcending, Heaven on Earth, a depth of feeling that leaves words behind; suffice to say that Slatkin and the DSO were the real deal and created quiet playing of a spiritual intensity that was spellbinding.
The Finale opens with a tremolo worthy of Bruckner 9, and it’s not long before Elgar is resurrecting, if transforming, already-used material, with a hint of Gerontius (then just a few years old), before a proud tread takes hold, trenchant here, and then another glorious panorama comes into view – chill up the spine time – and we’re on the homeward stretch to blazing affirmation (although it would be a very different story with the soon-to-appear Second Symphony).
Just as Symphony No.1 was a triumph for Elgar in 1908 – Hans Richter conducting the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, then shortly afterwards in London with the LSO – so it was that this Everest among Symphonies was successfully climbed by the DSO and Leonard Slatkin, and relayed in splendid sound.
By the way, The Lions won; don’t know what that means, but it meant something to the Detroit locals.