It is a measure of the priorities of London’s self-governing orchestras that the programme-book for this Philharmonia concert included potted biographies of its guest artists and even its absent principal conductor, but not its featured composer.
Piers Hellawell (b.1956) has had a stream of commissions over the past 10 years but is hardly a familiar name to concert-goers – partly the result of spending most of his adult life in Belfast, where he teaches at the Queen’s University.
But this isn’t a stick with which to beat our orchestras. Rather we should be congratulating them whenever they take the commercial risk of playing a living composer’s work. And when it’s not even a first performance, as with Hellawell’s Cors de chasse, more credit is due.
The selling point was the Swedish trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger, whose every London appearance is an event and who was sharing the platform with his trombonist compatriot Jonas Bylund. It says something about what they think of Hellawell’s 15-minute concertante piece that they were happy to return to it two years after its Brighton premiere.
It gives them plenty to get their teeth into: duets in rhythmic harness, jazz-inspired riffs and pyrotechnic solos. Much of this is entertaining, yet the impression is of a series of effects. And while the orchestra enjoys a life of its own, its material is eclipsed by the soloists, as if Hellawell had enough ideas for two separate pieces.
It was a joy to hear Hardenberger and Bylund finding so much music in Hellawell’s notes. Rewarding, too, to return to Walton’s Violin Concerto in Matthew Trusler’s technically flawless performance. But the pièces de résistancewere the two Elgar “overtures” (really symphonic poems) that framed this all-English programme.
Martyn Brabbins and the Philharmonia gave In the South and Cockaigne the sort of glamorous sound and sweep that augurs well for their tour to Mexico next week. ★★★★☆
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