BSO’s day trip to Plymouth to celebrate Beethoven’s ongoing anniversary

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Beethoven: Alfredo Ovalles (piano), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Marta Gardolińska (conductor). Plymouth Guildhall, 5.2.2020. (PRB)

Marta Gardolinska and Alfredo Ovalles (c) Philip R Buttall

MozartDon Giovanni, Overture

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.4 in G major; Symphony No.6, ‘Pastoral’

Pastoral Beethoven is one of three short series of concerts featuring a specific aspect in Beethoven’s output, in this the 250th anniversary of the birth of arguably classical music’s greatest composer. As with the previous series in November, this one also started off in Plymouth, no doubt for logistic reasons, given that the South West city is also the farthest from the BSO’s Dorset base.

Last November’s visit afforded me my first opportunity to hear the orchestra under the baton of Polish-born BSO Young Conductor in Association, Marta Gardolińska. On that occasion, I was particularly impressed by the vibrant performance and taut ensemble she got from her performers, simply using only her hands to conduct with, rather than the baton. The baton reappeared for this latest concert.

The evening got off to a flying start with a scintillating performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni Overturefleet of foot in the concluding Allegro section, but suitably ponderous and misterioso towards the end of the slow introduction. Da Ponte’s libretto for Mozart’s immensely-popular opera was billed as a dramma giocoso, a common designation of its time, implying a mix of serious and comic action. Although the composer catalogued the opera as an opera buffa (comic opera), it blends comedy, melodrama and supernatural elements, of which the short, but highly-condensed overture is a perfect microcosm. Gardolińska’s well-studied reading clearly showed that she had done her homework here. She was able to convey this to her players, who then obliged with a first-rate performance that prepared its listeners perfectly for the opera to follow, rather than a stand-alone concert overture.

The orchestra was then joined by the colourfully clad Venezuelan pianist Alfredo Ovalles in a performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Unlike the composer’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto (No.5), which opens with an impressive flourish from the piano, No.4 begins with some quiet chordal musings from the piano, before the orchestra enters with the main part of the exposition.

At the start of the performance, things looked most encouraging for a pleasant musical experience to follow. There was the odd fluff in some piano passage-work, but this can always happen in any live performance, and rarely detracts to any degree. But when you are a pianist yourself, have heard the work many times, or are familiar with the score, it comes as a real shock when what you are hearing is not always quite the Beethoven you know and love. A couple of double-takes later, and it became apparent that Ovalles was occasionally adding little melodic embellishments of his own. On one occasion, it seemed, he attempted to shift some two-handed trills from one register to another. That, in the event, did not really come off, since his ‘modification’ was probably harder than Beethoven’s already tricky writing.

The BSO under Gardolińska is a particularly precise and responsive outfit. Here there were a couple of occasions when a long piano run up and down the instrument needed to be met at the split section by a chord, or pizzicato from the orchestra, but this did not always quite come off. True, it is very difficult to achieve, but with perfect timing from the piano and excellent communications with the conductor, it should be achievable.

Somewhat bizarrely, though, when it came to the cadenza, Ovalles pretty much followed Beethoven, based on the composer’s two written-out cadenzas to the first movement, even if it did feel at times that he was almost trying to infuse it with a slight jazz feel.

The short, but extremely poignant slow movement fared far better, and there was some impressive use of shared dynamics, and a greater sense of empathy between soloist and conductor. But barely had the last note of the piano died away than the orchestra struck up the jaunty finale theme, and from then on the party spirit really took over, as the music rushed headlong to its conclusion.

No doubt Beethoven was looking down on all this with an impish grin, thinking that, when he gave the first public performance of the work himself, in 1808, he could also have added a spot of embellishment, or some improvisation on the day, However, he knew only too well that, had he done so, the result would have been far better, and decidedly more appropriate.

The programme note informs us that Ovalles has explored many different musical worlds, classical, electronic and jazz, all driven by his love for experimentation. This is, indeed, an admirable goal, and one has only to think of someone like the late André Previn, a truly multi-talented artist, who was readily at home in so many different musical environments. But he intuitively knew which musical hat to wear on any one occasion, and which were ill-suited, when worn together.

As it happened, Pastoral Beethoven proved a totally apt title for the evening’s music-making. Mozart’s overture had proved an ideal starter, the concerto was not necessarily to everyone’s taste, and so it was left to the old-familiar warhorse – Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – to end the concert in the manner in which it had started out with such great promise.

The first movement’s tempo-marking translates literally as ‘Lively, but not too much so’, and is essentially a placid and cheerful movement. Gardolińska clearly focussed more on the ‘lively’ side, rather than the need to moderate this, and, at times, did cause some of the phrases and figurations occasionally to sound rushed, despite the fact that violinist Mark Derudder’s leadership was clear and decisive throughout.

Luckily, however, Gardolińska got the tempo of the slow movement just right, where it asks for a good deal of movement, without which things can so easily have a tendency to drag. Entitled ‘By the brook’, it drew some of the evening’s finest playing from each section of the orchestra, from the warm, rich string tone to the solo flute, oboe, and clarinets in their celebrated cameo ‘birdsong’ cadenza just towards the end.

There were some real high spirits in the ensuing Scherzo, and even more so in the Trio with its rustic drone accompaniment, as we looked in on the country-folk dancing, and generally making merry. BSO Principal Cellist Jesper Svedberg was clearly enjoying every single note of this, and I am sure he would love to have danced along, with his trusty cello as his partner, if only he could have found a way.

This outdoor merrymaking, like on any average summer’s day, is soon, though, brought to a halt, as drops of rain start to fall, and, before we know it, a full-scale storm has erupted. Here winds and timpani get a chance to show their prowess, alongside the trombone section, who have been patiently waiting until now, to make their first entry in the symphony. As things eventually begin to subside, individual woodwind lead the orchestra into the final movement – a ‘Shepherds’ thanksgiving after the storm’ – which features one of the composer’s best-loved horn melodies. Gardolińska is a dab hand at using a wide range of dynamics to good effect, and this is so very evident here in the finale, when eventually the whole orchestra gets to sing out the original horn melody in all its glory. Finally, after a muted horn reprises the opening phrase, it just needs two full orchestral chords to bring this masterpiece of programme music to a close.

Gardolińska had fashioned a memorable and expressive picture in both sound and in the listener’s imagination, in which she was greatly assisted by the commitment and expertise of her players, especially by the outstanding contribution from the woodwind, and confident assurance from the horns in the finale.

At the start of the evening, BSO Head of Marketing Anthony Brown expressed his desire, on behalf of the management, to add a third visit to the city in future years. With full houses now the norm, music-lovers in the Plymouth area are certainly demonstrating there is very much a will for this – it is just for the powers-that-be to come up with a mutually-acceptable way to take this forward.

Philip R Buttall

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