Review: BSO’s ‘Elgar’s Cello Eulogy’ @ Exeter Northcott

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra have once again succeeded in transforming the University Great Hall, if only for an evening, into the Carnegie, Wigmore, or Royal Albert Hall. Playing to the busiest crowd of the season, and sporting some jazzy red music folders, the BSO brought an ambitious set list to life with poignant sensitivity and astonishing skill. Pushing the players to their limit was guest conductor Christoph König, whose immense expressive range was communicated in a smooth and improbably relaxed dance of his baton. Throughout each piece, the eyes of each player were conspicuously trained on the sometimes peaceful, sometimes frantic movement of König’s arms. The conductor did well to unify the ensemble and produced a tautness that gave the soloists ample room to experiment without having to worry about accidentally running away with the measure.

The evening began with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a piece best suited to, and originally composed for, a small chamber performance, only adapted to a full orchestral score as a consequence of commercial demand. Despite this, the orchestra did well to fill the hall to the fullest extent allowed by the occasionally thin score. The prominent presence was of course the strings, the section I have come to admire as the BSO’s greatest strength. Exceptional richness and depth from the cellos and first violins have formed the basis for many of their finest performances, and the Wagner was no exception.

After a short pause, Leonard Elschenbroich brought his aggressive vibrato and ferocious passion to Elgar’s Cello Concerto. The 325-year-old Matteo Goffiller cello, over a thousand miles away from its birthplace in Venice, produced a breathtakingly rich sound. It reminded everyone in the audience that we are all extremely fortunate that such instruments still survive. In his stewardship of the instrument, having played with some of the finest orchestras in the world, Elschenbroich has acquired a unique style and a breath-taking feel for the emotional content of the music he plays. Throughout the Elgar, the words of the composer, written after the armistice in 1918, haunted the stage: ‘Everything good and nice and clean and fresh and sweet is far away – never to return’.

After a short interval and a gruelling queue for ice cream met with heartbreak and disaster as only strawberry remained, the evening turned west. A full-length performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, more commonly known as the ‘New World Symphony’, formed the second half of the concert. After the mastery of the strings earlier in the evening, the brass were given their moment, swelling with the famous themes that have come to represent the essence of exploration and the mysterious landscape of adventure. A much-performed and even oftener played symphony, Dvořák’s ninth was treated to a beautiful, if familiar, recitation from the BSO.

With only two Exeter concerts of the season remaining, I can’t emphasise enough to University students the value and extraordinary opportunities these concerts represent.

If you’re aged between 18-25, I urge you to take advantage of the BSO’s ‘Vibes’ programme, which offers £5 tickets to concerts at Lighthouse Poole, Great Hall Exeter, Portsmouth Guildhall, and Bournemouth Pavilion. For more information, and to register for a ‘Vibes’ card, please visit: https://www.bsolive.com/vibes/

– by Thomas Gordon-Colebrooke

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