United Kingdom Ravel, Haydn, Beethoven: Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Frank Zielhorst (conductor), Guildhall, Plymouth, 21.1.2016. (PRB)
Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin
Haydn: Cello Concerto in C major
Beethoven: Symphony No 2 in D major
Despite being a reasonably large city of some 260,000 inhabitants, Plymouth is often acknowledged more for its coastal scenery and rolling hills of Dartmoor in the background than as a leading centre for classical music. For many years it benefited from regular touring visits from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO), an association, going back some fifty years. But since 1995, these have tended to be just once a year or so, leaving Devon’s far smaller county-town of Exeter as the nearest location where the BSO still regularly performs. These later one-off visits have also been in the multi-purpose Plymouth Pavilions, and the BSO was, in fact, part of a bizarrely-mixed programme which launched the Pavilions back in 1991. That night the orchestra, under conductor Owain Arwel Hughes, shared the platform with, among others, the late Irish comedian Frank Carson. Carson’s opening remark, though, delivered in his inimitable rich brogue – “It’s like a bl__dy great hangar!” – even then seemed knowingly prophetic in terms of its real suitability as a venue for classical music.
The BSO had decided to mark its long-overdue return to the city by coming back to its spiritual home – Plymouth Guildhall – rather than the Pavilions, with a mix of classical and neo-classical works which, while working perfectly on the night, didn’t exactly feature three real crowd-pullers as such.
Originally for piano, Ravel’s ravishing orchestration of his Le Tombeau de Couperin presents a myriad of delicate colours and timbres in a texture appropriately light enough to allow every subtlety and nuance to shine through. Dutch conductor Frank Zielhorst managed his resources to perfection, in a performance which really highlighted the orchestra’s superb strings and woodwind in particular. The fast semiquaver passages from the latter were tautly-disciplined and articulate in Prélude while the former, muted and divided, contributed to some simply ravishing sounds towards the movement’s end. The players perfectly reproduced the rhythmic spirit of Forlane, with sufficient lilt, while never feeling driven. Similarly the dance-like quality of Menuet was finely pointed, with the brass making a telling contribution at the climax. Rigaudon rounded things off splendidly, with Zielhorst and his orchestra collaborating most effectively to define the finale’s clear sectional contrasts in style.
The Gallic connection was maintained when young French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras joined the BSO in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C. Queyras proved an absolutely outstanding soloist, not just to listen to, but to watch, as he clearly savoured every single note of the score, treating his trusty instrument more as a much-loved friend, seeming almost to spar with it at times in some wonderfully bold spiccato bowing in the outer movements, while caressing it lovingly in the central Adagio. Perfect articulation and technical assurance allied to a wonderfully rich tone especially in the high register, made for a totally mesmerising and engaging performance, and given without the encumbrance of a score, the evening’s undoubted musical highlight.
Despite moments of eloquence in the extended introduction to Beethoven’s Second Symphony, the work as a whole exudes exuberance and sparkle, particularly in the witty finale. The orchestra, under the well-studied, though by no means flamboyant leadership of Mark Derudder, once more confirmed the abundant talents in each section, with an idiomatic and eminently spirited reading, that clearly performers and conductor were relishing as much as their listeners.
Introducing the concert at the start of the evening, Zielhorst commented on just how long it had been since the orchestra had previously played in the Guildhall, and how pleased they all were to be back here. If the reception from the packed audience, and the excited comments overheard in the hall afterwards are anything to go by, then clearly Plymouth’s classical-music aficionados definitely want them back there – and sooner rather than later.
Philip R Buttall