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British Night at the BSO

Sir Neville Marriner Finally Returns to Boston

By Jeremy Baskin

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Sir Neville Marriner, conductor

Lynn Harrell, cello

Symphony Hall

Jan. 28, 8 p.m.

In England, something funny happened on the way to creating the world’s most expansive empire in the last millennium. The military and economic supremacy that Britain enjoyed for the 18th and 19th centuries somehow never ushered in a similar supremacy artistically, or at least in terms of classical music.

Okay, quick, name your three favorite British composers of all time. Can’t come up with one? How about German? Or Austrian? Or Russian? Or French? These last ones are much easier, which might give you the impression that English music ranks about on the same level as its cuisine, rather than its illustrious political and military history.

There are nevertheless exceptions to this perception of England being a void of classical music. Over the years, England has given us the music of Handel, Purcell, Britten, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Holst (though the first, and most famous, item on that list deserves a large asterisk as he was most definitely a German by birth who nevertheless spent most of his productive life in London).

But enough beating around the bush. Last week, the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented an almost completely British program. All of the pieces, and even the guest conductor, Sir Neville Marriner, hailed from Great Britain. Only the cello soloist, Lynn Harrell -- and, of course, the BSO musicians -- were born elsewhere.

The most impressive work on the program was Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor. This work, though in my opinion not as impressive as its equally romantic though definitely Slavic counterpart, Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, is one of the masterpieces in the cello repertoire. The Elgar concerto was perhaps made most famous by a series of coincidences. It was featured in the most famous recording made by a young, breathlessly attractive Jacqueline du Pre, who would later succumb to multiple sclerosis.

The BSO soloist, Lynn Harrell, gave the piece an expert interpretation. Harrell, a New Yorker by birth who has undertaken one of the most active solo careers since resigning his principal’s chair in the Cleveland Orchestra in 1971, has an aggressive style that was well-suited to the demanding Elgar score. He does, however, have a tendency to finish his loud strokes at the end of phrases with an arrhythmic accented flourish.

In addition, the softer and slower parts, particularly in the second and third movements of the concerto, gave Harrell the opportunity to exhibit his tremendous bow control. While the orchestra was playing, he nodded his head along rather vigorously, showing an intense involvement with the music. According to Harrell’s biography, one of the two cellos he plays on is a “1673 Jacqueline du Pre Stradivarius.” I wonder if last Tuesday night I heard the same cello that forever linked du Pre with Elgar?

The Elgar concerto was preceded by Sir Michael Tippett’s rather unimpressive Concerto for Double String Orchestra. This semi-tonal work lacks both a clear melody and a soul, though violin and cello solos in the second movement provided a much-needed break between the constant barrage of eighth-notes. The Tippett work is the kind of piece that makes you want to turn away from Britain forever, just like fried tomato slices and a partially uncooked fried egg on stale whole wheat toast at 6:30 a.m. in Heathrow airport (which, by the way, I did have once, and it set me back ٤.50).

After the intermission, we heard Ralph (pronounced “Rafe” -- leave it to the British to make something seemingly easy become unnecessarily complicated) Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony. Vaughan Williams, an intensely programmatic composer, is at his best when painting pastoral scenes.

Now, there aren’t too many pastures in London, but there are certainly a lot of churches, which means that the chimes and harp were used a lot in this symphony, notably at the cheery beginning and at the eerie ending. In between, the composer paints pictures of scenes in London. The most memorable part of the piece, led capably by the amazingly prolific British conductor Sir Neville Marriner, was a viola and clarinet dialogue in the second movement.

The thing about programmatic music that is sometimes the scene-painting gets in the way of the music. Great composers can achieve both the storytelling and the music-making, but -- like a poem where the rhymes are contrived -- programmatic music can fall into the trap of having the audience be able to say, “Okay, the trombone sounds like a car horn. So what?”

Who knows what the 21st century will bring for England? Geopolitically, it hasn’t been weaker in centuries. Maybe this could be the beginning of a musical renaissance?