Review: BSO’s ‘Divine Sublime’ @ Exeter Great Hall

Mozart’s Serenade in B flat major, dubbed Gran Partita, and brought resolutely to Exeter Great Hall by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, is far flung from its antecedents, and indeed the majority of the composer’s work in the form. As a musical form, and as can be etymologically inferred from its counterpart the divertimento, the serenade tends to suggest a certain accessibility – it was designed to be a typically incidental piece for 18th century social functions after all. A small cohort of the BSO began the evening with their rendition of this piece, consistently exemplifying its beauty, with Kirill Karabits’ conduction carefully staggering the moments of emphasis within the piece.

It was the perfect piece to demonstrate the talents of the principal clarinet, Kevin Banks, whose thirty years in the position with the BSO sadly comes to an end this week. His penultimate performance with the orchestra was deservedly praised by all. Gran Partita certainly offers plenty of opportunity to illustrate the capabilities of the clarinets, not least in the first trio of the first minuet, in which they and the basset-horns established a darkened tone, that moved into the melancholic triplets of the bassoons seamlessly. Here, Karabits was a flurry of staccato motion, drawing out the inherent sadness of the Mozart – it is a wonder what those at the premiere in 1784, attending a high-society benefit event, thought of this unexpected essence in a serenade.

This melancholy brings the piece to its most poignant moment; the adagio which is an overload of sublimity, and where all sense of entertainment is dispensed with. It may seem odd to use “entertainment” as a derogatory term, but, again by etymological inference one is able to realise the potential for music to do more than ‘hold’ its audience. Instead, the adagio imposes itself, it enthrals; it would take the most jaded or infantile audience member to be able to stand up and leave as the oboe’s haunting note (played by Edward Kay) sounded over the subtle polyphony beneath.


Following the interval, the entire orchestra came to the stage for Beethoven’s 7th, one of the greatest and strangest pieces of music ever to be written. This strangeness largely derives from its merging of classical and romantic forms, rather than the latter simply usurping the former. At this crucial juncture in Beethoven’s career, this 1812 piece (with parts being written as far back as 1807) offers no ease of insight into its meaning or wisdom – and this is a quality the BSO brought to the fore with their masterful playing.

The building of the first movement towards its Vivace was done impressively, again with Kay leading the oboes in the second of two juxtaposing themes, driving the piece into a state of mad repetition. The fast-paced continuation of the rhythm, with its constant return to the note E, must surely have been a strain on the performers, yet they pulled it off beautifully. In the second movement there was some time for aural, but not mental, respite. This section, still incredibly popular today, is where the rhythm of the symphony is at its most basic, and its most intense. Crescendoing throughout to its final iteration, the BSO built upon this rhythm confidently, drawing out the tragedy in the funereal music. The cellos, led by Jasper Svedberg, were especially prominent from this point on, and were crucial in driving home the power of the piece, which is truly one of the great 19th century symphonies.

The BSO have returned to Exeter with their new season and truly demonstrated the talent they have to offer. Their first performance is surely but a taste of what is to come. I look forward to their next appearance here in Exeter, on the 25th with “Songs from the Heart” and expect many more great things.

-Ben Britton


Photo Credits: Eric Richmond

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