This matinee concert provided a welcome opportunity to catch up with Alpesh Chauhan, the current assistant conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. His podium authority was immediately evident in Dvořák’s Othello Overture (1892) proceeding from an atmospheric introduction to an allegro that brought requisite focus to the composer’s free-wheeling design while allowing space for its Shakespeare-derived scenario to unfold. A gripping account, then, with the screwing-up of tension in the coda delivering the required frisson.
The CBSO was then joined by Laurence Jackson – one-time first-violinist of the Maggini Quartet and until recently leader of the CBSO – for this revival of Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy (1880). Self-effacing but not anonymous in manner, Jackson is well suited to this unwieldy though appealing amalgam of traditional melodies and solid craftsmanship – bringing out the pathos in a sombre introduction whose transformation into a rapt meditation on ‘Auld Robin Morris’ was fully conveyed. The Scherzo’s lively take on ‘Hey the Dusty Miller’ was no less appealing as was a winsome transition to the slow movement with its eloquent rhapsodising on ‘I’m a-Down for lack o’ Johnnie’. The Finale (here given uncut) made comparably rousing play on ‘Scots wha hae’, on its way to a heartfelt recollection then exhilarating flourish.
Jackson returned after the interval for another piece happily returning to favour, the Romance (1877) that Dvořák fashioned out of an early string quartet and whose searchingly chromatic harmony is balanced by a melodic poise which anticipates the composer’s maturity. Jackson was in his element, unfolding the melodic line with an unforced naturalness that was complemented by Chauhan’s lilting accompaniment. Hopefully he and the CBSO will find space for others among that wealth of shorter concertante pieces to have fallen from grace.
Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony (1832) has never left the repertoire since its revival soon after its composer’s death, but it is still a work whose innovation can easily be overlooked. Chauhan certainly had the measure of the Allegro’s unbridled élan, the exposition repeat – with its seamless formal transition – duly (and rightly) observed, and with a tensile energy as carried through the development then on to a coda as clinched the formal design with telling resolve. The Andante’s stark processional was evocatively conveyed at a swift yet never rushed tempo, with the ensuing intermezzo was characterised by heartfelt string playing and deft horns. The Finale then had the necessary contrast, its alternating of saltarello and tarantella rhythms effecting a powerful rhythmic charge that held good to the forceful close.
An engaging concert, then, and an auspicious one for Chauhan, who is evidently a conductor going places (he makes his debut with the LSO in January). This CBSO concert originally to have been directed by Walter Weller, whose death last June robbed the wider musical world of a conductor of unfailing insight across the repertoire. His cycles of Beethoven Symphonies and Piano Concertos (the latter with John Lill) with the CBSO bear witness to his traditional yet never hidebound approach, and this concert was appropriately dedicated to his memory.