Review: Oozing Mastery – ‘Natural Beauty’ with the BSO

Image courtesy of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Community reporter, Paul Valentine, reviews the recent Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) performance, Natural Beauty, at Portsmouth Guildhall on 8th February 2019, conducted by Michael Seal, and violin by Ning Feng. 

Full disclosure, nothing grabbed me about this programme. Don’t get me wrong, they are all terrific pieces, just not my blend of coffee.

With this in mind, I was somewhat soporific when the Hebrides Overture began, even though the cello opening was a perfect send off from Oban to the Isle of Staffa. The last time I saw this performed was some time ago, and with a bigger orchestra, so I did find it a little underwhelming; a little too quick in places, and a little less full-on than I expect to capture the poetry and romantic imagery of the piece. That said, the central quiet section away from the storm was outstanding, and the musical description of the ‘cave’, very compelling. The woodwind was matchless as usual with a superb clarinet.

The Brahms violin concerto is an absolute masterpiece. It has a wonderful crafted beauty – rather like a Spanish silk mantilla, but there is, at least for me, nothing of the simplicity of nature. It is a wonderfully noble piece and demands exceptional virtuosity, not just from the violinist, but from every player. It is, above all, a technical colossus.

From start to finish, this rendition oozed mastery. The interplay between both violin and orchestra was for me reminiscent of the relationship Barenboim demonstrated in playing Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto at times; deliciously loving, playful and intense. The cadenza in the first movement was a pure joy; exceptional playing, exceptional balance, exceptional control. During the adagio there were times that I imagined Mahler was echoing off the walls of the Guildhall; as though the very playing was inventing a life of its own. The final allegro was ebullient and fresh, never strained but perfectly balanced. Ning Feng completed the movement with the most free, almost fanatical, gypsy style with intensive double stopping and simply amazing dexterity along the length of the fingerboard. His reward was overwhelming applause at the end with three returns and an encore, when he played us an unbelievable rendition of Paganini’s God Save the Queen (or was it King?). Unbelievable, because some of his dexterity defied anatomy.

Not that long into Dvorak’s 8th symphony, I wrote on the programme, ‘I thought I knew this symphony!’ This was not because I had forgotten it, but because tonight’s conductor, Michael Seal, gave a fresh glimpse of those superlative vistas of the Czech countryside, punctuated by the wonderful ‘Vitava’ (Life-giver) river which bisects this glorious country.

There was a different nobility here, underpinned by the superb playing of the cellos. Mr Seal gave me the impression that he had just finished a PhD on this symphony such was his knowledge; even the butterflies and birds were given fingertip trills. The descriptive elements of the River were elegantly constructed with superb playing by strings and woodwind, particularly in some fabulous playing by principals flute and clarinet. The second movement demonstrated for me the amount of thought that Seal had given to this music; it so often can drift from pathos to sadness even depression. This was slow, expansive, pensive and crystal clear; full of innate beauty and stayed supremely in the afterglow of a wonderful day by the Danube – and if is going to end, there is always tomorrow!

The third movement takes us into a waltz which is more trance than ball. Indeed, for me, this is an evening by the river but al fresco, with the colour and smells and sights of this fabulous place. It swirls into an almost surreal, condensed state of rapture like a child in a land of make-believe. The trumpet fanfare is a clever device that keeps us in this fantastical place, but then takes us back to the opening themes. In many ways it is not difficult to see why this symphony is so often combined with the Brahms violin concerto. They both display technical genius, they both include dance elements and wonderful rhythmic qualities, and they both contain a Bohemian freedom that belies technical rigour. And yet they are so different – the Brahms is a great city, whilst the Dvorak is the majesty of nature.

This is the second time I have gone into the Guildhall with a bit of a heavy heart and come out walking on air! Magical indeed. I was going to end with that often overstated pugilistic cliché, but that would be clearly wrong. The BSO are a great orchestra because they excel in togetherness and always ensure that ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing!’

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra programme continues at the Guildhall on 28th February with BSO: Superhuman Strauss For more information and to see all forthcoming performances at the Guildhall, see their website, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Image courtesy of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.