ARTISTIC director and conductor John Gibbons made Worthing Symphony Orchestra history and legend in a remarkable double fell swoop on Remembrance Sunday afternoon.
Not only did he join forces with a German cellist to produce a world class – yes, I did say it: world class – performance of a great and appropriately chosen concerto, the Elgar. He then threw aside the cushions of comfort and consolation to which regulation Remembrance Day music normally takes us.
How? By making us visually confront war in the raw. He staged the showing of the 79-minute Imperial War Museum silent film The Battle of The Somme, comprising digitally restored documentary footage shot around the front line, which half the British population saw on cinema screen across the nation in 1916. It was the first glimpse most non-service citizens had seen of killing fields in action and changed their view of the value of war.
Timelessly harrowing to view, it was accompanied behind the screen in subdued light by the 52-players strong WSO, directed by Gibbons, playing young contemporary British film composer Laura Rossi’s admirably restrained, sympathetic and euphonious 2006 score in exact synchronisation. Afterwards, audience questions were answered by Rossi and Dr Toby Haggith, the Imperial War Museum’s research department senior curator, who had introduced the film following the concert interval.
A large audience with their emotions wrenched apart departed into the evening, but in respect and awe, at the power of this whole programme masterminded by Gibbons. Already a proven concert planner of imagination and strength, here he both respectfully and adventurously broke of the mould.
Latterly Washington-based composer John Ireland’s Epic March opened the concert, or should I rather call it an event? Ireland rejected no template here in this 1942 work in the noble British ceremonial tradition but set the scene by taking us back in time.
Ireland, incidentally, died at Rock Mill, above the sand pit, in 1962. The view of his home from Chanctonbury Ring is one of Sussex’s sights of English musical history.
As is Brinkwells cottage above the Stopham woods at Fittleworth, where Elgar, emotionally bayonetted by the First World War and its destruction of his cherished society, completed his Cello Concerto a year after the Armistice. Just seeing ‘My beloved horses’ dead on the Somme battlefield in the film would have lanced his heart. Let alone the loss of certain friends.
As a European, Elschenbroich, born in Frankfurt 27 years ago and partner of violinist Nicola Benedetti, scarcely needs to know this because this music, though English in origin and conception, is universally expressive of so much familiar human longing and nostalgia. But he has spent 16 years in England, 11 of them at the Menuhin School, which produced a great new interpreter of the Elgar Violin Concerto in Nigel Kennedy. Is Elschenbroich already that of the Cello Concerto?
Here came an Anglo-German performance of a towering quality that audiences in London, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, St Petersburg, Paris, Milan, let alone New York or Philadelphia, would have paid high sums to have heard.
In the WSO repertoire, Gibbons is unbeatable in Elgar, so Elschenbroich had the perfect ally. They and the WSO moved as one, reflecting the nuances and subtle tempo changes Elgar requests but does not always get. The reading was broad, with a conscious balance and control between introversion in its lyrical moments and the ultimately shallow extroversion and despairing jolts of energy, such as the right hand thrums across the soloist’s strings which were sometimes vehemently angry, and the penetrating orchestral punctuations.
Elschenbroich’s tone was even across the range and his poetic intensity never melodramatic. A powerful blend of intellect and emotion, power and submission.
From all the plays this music receives, not least on Classic FM, the material is now familiar and testament to any performance is where it leads one’s imagination. For me this time the cello began as a sleepwalker in a nocturnal atmosphere. A misty grey sunrise eventually arrived. I then thought of an Elgar autumn morning at Brinkwells. Drifting bonfire smoke, pipe smoke and cooking smells. The scent of dog fur, damp grass and trees. The woods with precious little birdsong, the nightingales long gone.
Animals wild and domestic scurried and chased in the Scherzo; in watery sunlight an afternoon reverie in the Adagio looked back unable to grasp and revive lost happy times; the Finale, Elgar’s laboured and disgruntled dragging of himself towards a lonely future without his Friends Pictured Within.
At the end Elschenbroich stopped hearts as he brought back the opening theme just like a long dying breath, before the orchestra, with Robert Millet’s tympany strokes cracking like a gunburst, slammed the door on the past with nothing to replace it.
I apologise. But I know I was not alone in being so transported. Those of you also there: where did it take you? Not a note of cello went unheard in the wonderful Assembly Hall acoustic and Elgar’s masterly orchestration. This was Gibbons and the WSO lifted to the highest rank by a soloist we pray will return.