W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn

In less than thoroughly capable hands, Elgar’s Symphony No 1 can seem interminable. And over the years, I’ve had the misfortune to suffer through a number of poor performances of this masterpiece. Not so on Thursday morning, though.

With a W.A.Symphony Orchestra very much on form, the work unfolded in a way which, I’d like to think, would have received the warmest applause from the composer himself had he through some miracle of time travel been present at the concert. And a big audience on Thursday morning did the symphony (and performance) honour by listening in absorbed silence, which, at work’s end, gave way to prolonged, thoroughly deserved applause.

Mark Wigglesworth is not tall in physical terms – but as an interpreter of Elgar’s masterpiece, he is a musical giant. I cannot imagine anyone failing to be both awed and moved by the quality of playing he coaxed from the WASO. From first note to last, Wigglesworth was in command in the most positive sense as we listened to an orchestra responding to direction by a conductor clearly attuned to even the tiniest details of the score.  This was particularly evident in the slow movement where Wigglesworth and his forces evoked its magical essence to an awesome degree.

Elgar’s First is a symphony that ought to be far more frequently offered in Perth’s orchestral programs. Premiered on December 3rd 1908, it took until 1961 for the symphony to appear for the first time on a WASO program.

So far this year, the WASO strings have, more frequently than not, been in impressive form. And this was again evident at this concert. Plaudits in particular for the cellists who sounded at the top of their game. High praise, too, for the brass section which responded magnificently to the score.

In passing: Elgar was the son of a shopkeeper who was also a piano tuner. In the Edwardian era, English class consciousness was at its height. And if you were not of that class, you were looked down upon. Many of Elgar’s music contemporaries were largely a bunch of third-raters who through birth, connections and/or wealth were considered upper class and fawned upon. They looked down on Elgar –  “good gracious, the chap’s father is a shopkeeper!”.

All his life, Elgar was acutely conscious of being looked down upon because – quelle horreur –  he and his father worked for a living.  And the young Elgar used the books on his father’s music shop shelves to teach himself music theory and counterpoint.  And he certainly had the last laugh.

Most of the compositions of those snobbish contemporaries are nowadays considered junk and almost never heard. Vaughan Williams was a notable and noble exception.  That Elgar, in maturity, was showered with honours and elevated to the aristocracy as a baronet, must have caused his dreadful contemporaries to gnash their teeth in envy.