S&C’s classical music commentator Paul Valentine shares his experience of an evening with Weber, Prokofiev and Brahms at Portsmouth Guildhall on 30th March 2023.
When I saw the size of tonight’s orchestra and reminisced about concerts of Brahms 1 directed by Karajan and Barenboim with at least a third more players, which I saw as a 17 year old student, I was somewhat underwhelmed, especially given that the conductor was still essentially a student, albeit at Polands most distinguished academy. However, as the night started with the magic of Weber, I was soon drawn in by the technical brilliance of both the conductor and the orchestra’s response. Let me tell you, I often look for players’ responses to each other, and noted more than four occasions when players smiled to each other because they were clearly pleased; always a very positive sign.
Of course Weber had a certain skill in quieting audiences who weren’t actually required to be silent back in the day, and Oberon in particular starts with a lot of quiet fiddling around followed by an explosion demanding ‘wokeness’. Der Freischutz although not quite so obviously bold, certainly has its moments. There can be no doubt that after this overture, both audience and orchestra are equally warmed to the occasion.
Prokofiev was of course both an instrumental and orchestral genius. Apart from his symphonic works and piano concertos, the second violin concerto belongs to his most popular and productive period which includes the Lieutenant Kije suite, the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and the children’s masterpiece Peter and the Wolf. We need here to go back to that word I mentioned earlier, because James Ehnes is technically brilliant at his craft and is probably now one of the most sought after virtuosos due to his warm timbre and technical articulation. This rendition was simply fabulous; not only in showing off a wonderful violinist, but also an exceptional orchestra and a superbly gifted composer.
And on to the ‘Mighty Brahms’. I just can’t get to grips with this ‘Beethoven/Brahms’ thing. True, Beethoven was all encompassing, but we are talking about music not boxing; and Brahms, in terms of a timeline, is nearer to Mahler than Beethoven. However, it does, I suppose give some context to orchestral size, since tonight’s performance was the quintessential size for a Beethoven performance in the eighteenth century – whatever did happen in the 60’s/70’s? Probably a loud orchestral fuzz, and certainly not the philosophical light and dark; positivity and negativity of this superb symphony. Certainly, there was much more tension and bursting exuberance than delivered by those huge orchestras.
Perhaps the only negative part of the evening was to see so many empty seats in the auditorium. Maybe these could be given free to young sixteen, seventeen year old students to counteract the effects of the national curriculum and build back some sustainability perhaps. Just a thought.
‘The Mighty Brahms’ performance took place on 30th March 2023 at Portsmouth Guildhall, featuring Weber’s Der Freischutz Overture, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.2, and Brahms’ Symphony No.1. It was performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, with Anna Sułkowska-Migoń, Conductor, and James Ehnes, Violin.
Find out more about the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s performances at the Guildhall here.
Image from an unknown source, public domain and made available at Wikimedia Commons.