As part of the Royal College of Music’s “Passing Youth” series, this programme brought reflections on the Great War, its spiritual and physical loss encoded in works written within a decade of one another by two composers who served their respective countries.
First off was La valse, Ravel’s atmospheric portrait of pre-war Vienna, masterly in its orchestration, its glaring colours and shadows fully explored by the highly accomplished RCM students. John Wilson sought to underline Ravel’s description of his choreographic poem as an “impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling motion”, and judged the work’s inherent solemnity to perfection. Balance could have been more smoothly controlled, but handsome string tone conjured the splendour of aristocratic salons, and accumulating tensions reached fever-pitch for an exhilarating close.
Ravel’s ‘other’ Piano Concerto, the result of a commission from Austrian Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right arm on the Russian front during the first few weeks of the War. Ravel’s music brings solace, brutal eruptions, mechanistic jazz and virtuosic pianism. RCM alumnus Nikola Avramovic (who took a while to settle) fashioned a dark-hued account of considerable power, and while its formidable demands never felt far away he found an agreeable mix between introspection and drama, and the technically assured cadenza expressed intimacy and regret. Wilson and the RCM players gave vivid and sensitive support, timpani imposing but never dominating, brass and woodwinds distinctive (contrabassoon impressing at the start) and strings self-assured.
For all the surface tranquillity evoked by the title of Vaughan Williams’s Third Symphony, the work’s pastoral glow is far more elegiac, its tragic undertow memorial in tone. Wilson mostly succeeded in conveying this aspect, unveiling the opening movement’s melodic invention seamlessly, if not always assimilating tempo changes into a fluent, cohesive framework. While gravitas was understated there was much to admire from the musicality of solos, cor anglais notably expressive. Nick Walker’s affecting offstage trumpet brought to mind Vaughan Williams’s experience of hearing a bugler practising on the Western Front; and here, juxtaposed with mournful horn and strings, was intensely poignant, the second movement’s pathos touching. Hints of untidiness in the third movement didn’t gainsay robust playing and fleet-of-foot strings in its closing pages. More expansive paragraphs unfolded in the closing Lento initiated by Ted Black’s superbly controlled wordless tenor (more usually a soprano) – a little too distant at first but developing with warmth and clear tone that added immeasurably to playing of grandeur and sensitivity, bringing this powerful symphonic journey to a heart-easing close – applause held in check.