Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Shelley at Lighthouse – In the South & Aus Italien – Sebastian Knauer plays Mendelssohn

In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor, Op.40
Aus Italien, Op.16

Sebastian Knauer (piano)

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Shelley

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 30 November, 2016
Venue: Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, England

Alexander ShelleyPhotograph: © Thomas DaggThis Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concert combined evocations of Italy and provided a rare opportunity to hear Richard Strauss’s Aus Italien, written in 1886 when he was twenty-two. If the BBC Proms Archive is to be believed, it has yet to be performed in one go at those concerts, and then only in 1903 and 1910. The Bournemouth players and Alexander Shelley made a persuasive case for it.

The evening began with Elgar’s In the South – music associated with the BSO thanks to a 1968 recording with Constantin Silvestri. Nearly fifty years later the current personnel took this work in their stride. Everything flowed seamlessly with perfectly judged tempos and with balance as good as anything I’ve heard in the Lighthouse. Shelley created plenty of impetus while also reconciling pugnacious and elegiac features. Tom Beer brought poetic viola-playing to the ‘Canto popolare’ section, strings and harp combining to magical effect. From this point Shelley kept firm control of mounting tensions, thus enabling the Grandioso conclusion, with its fff markings, to be wonderfully vivid.

A gap of nearly ten minutes for platform alterations should have made differences between Elgar’s and Mendelssohn’s soundworlds easier to adjust to. And so it might have done, had Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No.2 (1837) been given with considerable more verve. It wasn’t that its classical scoring suddenly felt pallid; it was more the absence of energy in the tones being made that made this lively music seem so wooden and foursquare. Neither conductor nor soloist, Sebastian Knauer, created enough sparkle or dynamic variety to bring out Mendelssohn’s delightful spontaneity and charm. Greater rhythmic propulsion and more nuanced phrases would have given the opening movement more momentum. Knauer was technically secure but his playing needed more clarity and opportunities for scintillating expression were largely missed. The Adagio was eloquent enough and the Finale uncovered a robust partnership between soloist and orchestra if with little suggestion of scherzando. Where Knauer impressed was in his encore – the ‘Elegie’ from Mendelssohn’s Opus 85 set of Songs without Words – finally delivering poise and sensitivity.

Sebastian KnauerPhotograph: Steven HaberlandFollowing the interval Strauss’s picture postcard from Italy was a real pleasure. In this vibrant synthesis of the symphonic and the descriptive, the BSO enjoyed itself. Lustrous string tone enveloped the soaring melody of the first movement, ‘In the Campagna’, and in the subsequent depiction of the ruins of Rome, Shelley made the most of what is arguably the least convincing movement. The imaginatively-scored ‘On the Beach at Sorrento’ produced some delicate interplay between wind and strings, and a rapt violin solo from Amyn Merchant. Best of all was the virtuosity of the tarantella Finale, including the use of the joyful ‘Funiculì, funiculà’ (mistaken by Strauss as a folksong but composed by Luigi Denza), which was heard to rousing effect.

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