Rare Bridge plus more familiar Saint-Säens and Elgar from BSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bridge, Saint-Säens, Elgar: Jesper Svedberg (cello), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / David Hill (conductor), The Anvil Arts Centre, Basingstoke, 07.2.2013. (NB)

Bridge: Enter Spring – Rhapsody for Orchestra
Saint-Säens: Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor Op.33
Elgar: Symphony No.1 in A flat major Op.55

The days when the phrase ‘regional’ orchestra was a pejorative for ‘not very good’ are long gone as evidenced by the committed and virtuosic playing last night by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the Anvil in Basingstoke.  The programme was especially interesting – for me – with music that is as rare in the concert hall as it is of real worth.

Frank Bridge seems destined never to break through into any kind of popularity.  Yet his 1927 Enter Spring is one of the masterpieces of British music between the Wars and I would go further to say it is the finest piece of orchestral writing by a British composer during those years.  By that I mean as regards the actual handling of the orchestra – only Bax comes close for luxuriant and imaginative use of the apparatus of the Late Romantic Orchestra.  Bridge’s particular skill is to meld onto the potentially discursive rhapsodic form a musical structure that is both cohesive yet ravishingly beautiful.  So it was with keen interest that I wanted to hear this rare live performance.

I have to admit to a certain disappointment.  The orchestral playing was all fine – the shortcomings sat with the interpretation.  David Hill is an experienced and enthusiastic proponent of British music but in this instance I had two main concerns.  In an attempt to avoid any charges of excessive rhapsodising he conducted the opening especially in a strangely literal way.  The work is written in compound time throughout, which causes a conductor issues with the risk of the music falling into the rum-ti-rum rhythms redolent of pastures and cowpats.  The answer is not to push the music unrelentingly on – which strips it of the sense of held rapture.  Bridge writes some of the most beautiful nature music in the repertoire but it does need to have the sense of breath caught and gentle ecstasy.  Another fault – and one that recurred throughout the evening – was a lack of nuance in the dynamic graduation of the work and allowing the brass full rein too often.  The Anvil’s acoustic is naturally generous and helpful to that section so real care needs to be taken if it will not overwhelm.  Even within the brass choir internal balances were not as carefully addressed as they needed to be with trombone harmonies overwhelming trumpet lead lines.

One of the great moments in the work is the hushed string entry – in a swaying march rhythm – which heralds the turning of the season.  In the score Bridge prefaces this with some magical woodwind birdcalls marked Andante tranquillo.  The strings enter just seven bars later with the marking tempo giusto.  Hill chose, wrongly I feel, to interpret this as markedly faster – it should simply refer to steady [rubato-free] time but still as an andante tranquillo.  On such tiny differences a great performance becomes routine.  Anthony Payne in his sympathetic study of Bridge’s works makes the point that the composer sets himself a structural problem by allowing this magnificent marching passage to reach an epic climax before returning to the opening pastoral mood and then closing the work with another triumphal peroration.  The danger is how to top the first climax.  Bridge does not help the players much; both are fully [not identically] scored and with the same ff dynamic indication.  This is where the conductor can help by pulling back from the first passage – the material is impressive enough in its own right.  This Hill chose not to do with the closing pages played at the same dynamic as before giving the end of the work an anti-climactic sense of having been there before.

A mark of the robust health of British orchestras is that a soloist of superb calibre can be drawn from its ranks.  The Saint-Säens Cello Concerto No.1 was played by the orchestra’s own principal cellist Jesper Svedberg.  This was playing of great quality by any standard.  Saint-Säens’ reputation seems to rest on a small handful of popular works.  This concerto rests on the periphery of that group – favoured by cellists and well represented on disc but not that common in the concert hall.  It fitted in very well to this programme, with its modest scale – both in duration and musical ambitions – providing a pleasant interlude between the big gestures of the Bridge and Elgar.  Throughout Svedberg played with an unfussy virtuosity and beautiful singing tone.  Saint-Säens always managed to write singularly apt music for his concertante instruments; here the passages that linger most in the memory are the lyrical second subjects; the finale has a particularly beautiful example played to perfection here with the tenor voice of the cello able to project through the skilful orchestration without any sense of forced tone.  I rather like the slightly sniffy quote from Saint-Säens given in the programme; “Expression and passion seduce the amateur … an artist who is not fully satisfied by elegant lines, harmonious colours and beautiful harmonic progressions has no understanding of art.”  This work could encapsulate that creed. It is interesting to note it was written in the middle of the period when the Romantic concerto was becoming fully established; Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was just a couple of years away in 1874.  Saint-Säens writes in what might be termed a neo-classical way; the three movements are linked to play continuously with no display cadenza of any kind for the soloist.

Svedberg brought an expressive freedom to the playing that had been absent in the Bridge.  Even with the reduced orchestration there were still some balance issues with the woodwind group seeming curiously reticent.  Here, and indeed through the concert the Bournemouth strings displayed neatly articulated skill with the charming muted minuet second movement a particular delight.  It was a real pleasure to hear such fine music making and the orchestra warmly applauded their colleague’s excellent performance.

What a wonderful work Elgar’s Symphony No.1 is!  People may plead special cases for various British symphonic works that predate it but heard in concert the sheer confidence and skill of it impress all over again.  By some margin Hill was more at ease with this work.  I am no huge fan of historically informed performance practices but I do think Elgar wrote his music with the assumption that the violins would be split across the platform.  This was not done here and whilst it is by no means a disaster there is a kind of aural theatricality about hearing themes tossed from one side of the orchestra to the other that is lost when the sections sit side by side.  The opening tempo of the work – even though Elgar marked it clearly in the score as Q  = 72 – causes no end of problems for interpreters with all the implications of its cyclical return in the work’s closing pages.  Hill hit an ideal speed with the low strings capturing the sense of Nobilmente e semplice that the composer indicated.  Throughout the entire work tempi felt on the brisk side – Hill seems to prefer to push on rather than linger and certainly he does not fall into the worst Elgarian trap of anticipating marked slowings with an additional slowing!  There is room for a sense of flexibility around a central pulse and this is where Hill is less successful.  Passages stride forward with purpose and confidence but at the heart of so much Elgar is equivocation and doubt – otherwise the charge of bombast rings uncomfortably true.  Issues of balance were again significant.  The brass tended to play climax to climax which is undoubtedly exciting but far from the full picture.

The appearance of this work on the schedules tends to have the strings scrabbling for the practice pads to check out the tricky passage work of the 2nd movement.  Hill set a challenging speed that the players achieved with ease and brilliance.  This is a tour de force of orchestral writing and one that responded best to Hill’s rather forthright and driven approach.  Conversely it is not meant to be the feverish nightmare that Elgar described in the Second Symphony’s Scherzo.  The transition into the slow movement with its treatment of the same musical material never ceases to move and amaze.  The conductor needs to take a view about how literally to interpret Elgar’s highly detailed instructions regarding everything from articulation to dynamics and phrasing.  This is where intuition and instinct can lift a performance away from being simply an accurate recreation of the printed score.  Again, I would have enjoyed a greater sense of improvisatory freedom and nuance – the last half dozen bars are as riven with aching regret as any British music ever written. It was beautifully played here with the clarinet ‘farewell’ floated exquisitely – but Hill could have risked even more expressive freedom.

Brisk tempi were preferred for the Finale too and again this posed no technical problems for the excellent Bournemouth players. Certainly my impression – with no metronome to hand! – was that the main Allegro was well up on the marked h = 84.  Certainly there was a sense of “massive hope in the future”.  Momentum was well sustained and the quality of both the playing and the hall allowed one to wonder all over again at the sheer compositional brilliance of Elgar’s handling of the work’s motto theme as it was fragmented and tossed around the orchestra with playful virtuosity [oh to have those strings split though!].  The famous return of the work’s opening theme – a pearly back-desk solo – was magically done with the tune reappearing almost shyly from the full orchestral textures that precede it.  Here, the full benefits of hitting the correct tempo when the work began more than three quarters of an hour before are reaped; too fast and it can seem almost trite, too slow and it drags; just right and the quiet dignity of the music shines through.  The closing pages of the work never fail to move me with the great melody in full orchestral dress [those trombones still out of balance albeit rather excitingly so] over brilliant cascading string arpeggios driving the work to a confidently held A flat major chord.  This was by no means a particularly subtle or insightful interpretation but it was athletically exciting and as such drew warm and appreciative applause form the audience.

Nick Barnard