Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Italian’ Concert Sparkles

01/12/2016

Elgar, Mendelssohn, R. Strauss: Sebastian Knauer (piano), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Alexander Shelley (conductor), Lighthouse, Poole, 30.11.2016. (IL)

ElgarIn the South (Alassio)

Mendelssohn  – Piano  Concerto No.2 in D minor

R.StraussAus Italien – Symphonic Fantasy

One of my fondest memories is of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s electrifying 1967 EMI recording of Elgar’s In the South conducted by Constantin Silvestri, now available on a Warner CD. This is an acclaimed classic recording, thoroughly recommended. Alexander Shelley’s reading at this concert had high voltage. The extended episode suggesting the glory of ancient Rome was delivered with crushing, domineering authority, yet the lovely “canto populare” — Elgar’s own invention — was exquisitely phrased on the section leader Tom Beer’s solo viola (usually the Cinderella of the orchestra), and the refrain especially beautifully echoed by the cellos.

This whole concert was imaginatively and intelligently conceived, with interesting links between the three works. Mendelssohn was something of a role model for the young student Richard Strauss. Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Concerto has always been overshadowed by its predecessor, notably because it was perceived (wrongly) as having nothing new to say and lacking virtuoso opportunity.  This is a shame, for this more modest under-stated work has much to recommend it. Sebastian Knauer’s reading sparkled. He took a comparatively light but supple and colourful approach. His opening Allegro appassionato was joyous. His Adagio sang delicately and most heartwarmingly in Mendelssohn’s dulcet “song-without-words” manner.  Shelley with his much reduced orchestra gave polished, stylish support.

Richard Strauss was barely twenty when he wrote Aus Italien in 1884. Michael Kennedy’s acclaimed biography of the composer barely mentions it.  It was Strauss’s first attempt at writing in what would become his indulgent, highly coloured and complex tone-poem style. Yet it is in fact a four movement symphony and, as observers have remarked, not unlike Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony.  The first two movements reflect the composer’s awe and delight at the beauties of the countryside around Rome and associations with its glorious past.  Both were evocatively realised under Shelley’s baton but what impressed me most was the third movement set on a Sorrento beach. Here Shelley realistically evoked shifting zephyr breezes ruffling a calm sea surface under azure skies. I was more than ever before struck by a clear directional pointer towards Debussy and La Mer some 20 years ahead and to Atterberg’s “West Coast Pictures” Symphony No. 3.  Strauss’s orchestration for Aus Italien leans towards Liszt or perhaps Tchaikovsky at this point. There is, nevertheless, notable richness of sonority here, the multi-part string writing for instance deliciously enunciated and made transparent by the Bournemouth players. There is also much to be admired about the material for woodwinds and brass. All together in the notorious finale based on Denza’s song “Funiculi, funicula”, they performed Strauss’s wrangled tangled version with great enthusiasm and enjoyment.

Ian Lace

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