United Kingdom Prom 44. Strauss, Elgar, Berlioz, Truls Mørk (cello), Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 19.8.2014 (RB)
Strauss – Don Juan Op 20
Elgar – Cello Concerto Op 85
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique
This was the Proms debut for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) under the baton of their new principal conductor and Proms favourite, Sir Andrew Davis. The programme was framed by two programmatic Romantic showpieces, both of which show that the course of true love never does run smooth. Truls Mørk joined Davis and the MSO for Elgar’s much-loved Cello Concerto – this was the composer’s last orchestral work and his moving and poignant response to the untold suffering caused by the First World War.
Don Juan was Strauss’ first orchestral masterpiece and it helped establish the international reputation of the 24-year-old composer. Strauss drew on a verse drama by Nikolaus Lenau for inspiration and he placed a quotation from the poem at the head of the score: “the fuel is all consumed and the hearth is cold and dark”. Davis and the MSO sprang into action in the opening section which was delivered with considerable vigour and brio – the entries were razor sharp. Davis did a brilliant job in synthesising the contrasting thematic material, moving seamlessly from light, elfin, cleanly articulated figurations to rich harmonies expressing romantic yearning, swashbuckling adventures and grand passion. The principal oboe excelled job in his solo, giving us some exquisite shaping of the melodic line and allowing the music to breathe and I loved the concert-master’s sweet-toned violin solos. The shuddering final section where our hero is mortally wounded was perfectly realised, bringing this great tone poem to its shock conclusion.
Elgar wrote his Cello Concerto in 1919, a year after the end of the First World War. Prior to writing it, he had just completed work on three important chamber music compositions which may have influenced his approach to the work as the orchestral writing is sparse and pared back and much of the writing in the concerto has a chamber music feel. The work seems to be permeated with a sense of loss and an elegiac sadness – it was the composer’s acknowledgement that the “glad confident morning” of the Edwardian era had come to an end.
Truls Mørk took a cooler, more classical approach to the work than the highly charged emotional interpretation of Jacqueline du Pré but he produced some moments of rare beauty and some intensely moving playing. In the first movement he kept the lines very clean and pure and the phrasing, intonation and tone production were all immaculate while the sound projection was absolutely superb. This movement had a reflective, wistful quality that generally worked very well but I would have liked to hear more of the painful feelings that one hears in the famous Du Pré recordings. Davis and the MSO proved to be responsive and sympathetic accompanists – the violas produced a sad and pensive response following the introduction and there was supple and highly responsive phrasing from the woodwind in some of the exchanges. Mørk’s articulation of the repeated notes in the scherzo was superb and the playing remained incisive, light and beautifully shaded. The slow movement was gorgeous – Mørk produced dark, rich, plangent timbres and he gave us some very moving and heartfelt playing, somehow finding the sense of pain and loss at the heart of this work. There was excellent rapport between Mørk and the MSO in the finale and it is in this movement where his cooler approach drew major dividends, particularly in the way he was able to convey feelings of upbeat stoicism in the face of harrowing adversity and loss. He received rapturous applause at the end and performed a movement from one of Britten’s solo cello suites as an encore.
Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is one of the most extraordinary and original symphonic works to emerge from the first half of the nineteenth Century. With its use of a programme, its highly original use of l’idée fixe and cyclical structure, its imaginative use of orchestral colour (harps, bells, col legno strings) and its exploration of disturbed feelings brought on by drug induced hallucinations (including some Gothic grand guignol!) there is nothing else quite like it. Davis and the MSO were in their element with this piece and they gave an absolutely riveting account. Davis was on top of the shifts of mood and tempo in the opening movement and he and the MSO capitalised on the theatrical elements in the score. When the climax did come there was a rush of energy and colour from the MSO as the sheer unalloyed exuberance of the symphonic writing shone through. The harps created some glittering instrumental colours in the ballroom scene and one could hear the swirl of ball gowns and the dancers gliding around the floor. The oboe and cor anglais soloists handled their exposed entries well at the beginning of the third movement and succeeded in creating a feeling of space and tranquillity. Davis wove a rich pastoral tapestry of sound and the evocation of distant thunder from the timpani at the end was magical. There were blazing effulgent sounds from the brass in ‘March to the Scaffold’ and effective and charged interjections from the percussionists. This movement came across as a little too tightly controlled and safe and I wondered if Davis and his orchestral partners might perhaps make more of the ebullience and grand theatrical gestures in the score. The ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ was a fabulous piece of adrenaline-fuelled flamboyance with the MSO giving us a rich and increasingly animated collage of sounds: the summoning of the spectres and monsters in the graveyard was atmospheric and eerie, the clarinets and woodwind did a brilliant job bringing out the grotesque depravity of the witches while the brass made the Dies Irae theme reverberate with portentous menace around the Royal Albert Hall. The final section was a striking piece of musical theatre with Davis and the MSO firing on all cylinders.
The Promenaders responded with a rousing cheer and, as an encore, we were treated to Handel in the Strand by Australian composer, Percy Grainger. This Prom offered some fabulous playing from the MSO – let’s hope they come back again soon!