John Gibbons (conductor), Boris Brovtsyn (violin). Haydn,’ Mercury’ Symphony (No 43 in Eb); Mozart, ‘Turkish’ Violin Concerto (No 5 in A); Arensky, Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky; Grieg, Lyric Piece – Evening in the Mountains; Dvorak, Serenade for Strings in E.
The 25 WSO string players spent Sunday reaching for breath. They had only two oboes and two horns as back-up on what will have seemed like a uplands stage of the Tour de France. Lead violist Stephen Shakeshaft, who has done it for great musical directors from Klaus Tennstedt to Nelson Riddle, gathered himself and said: “Phwoar, that was a real test.”
Look at the above programme and guess which of these pieces posed the greatest challenge . . .
Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings was the culminating examination of ensemble and cohesiveness but the WSO gave us Bohemian rigour and bliss in a piece they will know and love. Arensky’s Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, both busy and calm, is less often performed but essential lyrical and restrained in its work around the Christmas carol tune to The Crown of Roses. So, no. Neither of these produced more sweat than they expected.
You can discount the icy and static wonder of Grieg’s marvelling awe at Arctic Circle mountains in evening light. Chris O’Neal, called by Dave Lee’s distant muted horn, wandered up and away until out of sight on his glorious oboe (made by Worthing manufacturers TW Howarth). No, this was the item on the bill that gave the WSO strings a breather. Grieg, who composes on mini-canvases, was not setting out on a craggy, storm-riven, Fjordian version of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony.
Then surely it can’t have been the Mozart? No, he’s too graceful in this Violin Concerto No 5 to create an endurance exam for strings - except for the soloist. More in a moment on Muscovite, Boris Brovtsyn.
So, by elimination, that leaves the Haydn. At its rehearsal, the players were gasping for their morning break. “Sorry, I can’t speak at the moment. I need a cup of tea after playing so many notes,” grinned principal cello David Burrowes. John Gibbons afterwards took the WSO right back into the Mercury Symphony to work on it some more. It’s to his credit and theirs that they produced a performance only musicians as good as these could forge out of an unpromising situation.
To get one thing straight, Haydn is one of the greats. Possibly his biggest fan was Stravinsky. Here, Gibbons was choosing for the first time, against conventional commercial concert programming, one of the less familiar ‘Sturm und Drang’ Symphonies of Haydn. These came from Nos 26 and 34 onwards in a fiery group clustered in the middle of his total of 104. With these, Haydn made the symphony the daring, forceful, highly expressive vehicle we know today. Remember that Haydn, as well as personally knowing, and striking inspirational awe in Mozart, taught Beethoven, who he invigorated arguably most potently of all with The Creation - which Beethoven heard, live, and after which he immediately responded towards Haydn in touching humble homage.
I’ll wager none of the WSO will have played the ‘Mercury’ or seen the music before the rehearsal. And having spoken to him, I know that includes Chris O’Neal, also of the London Mozart Players, who are performance friends of Haydn. It was WSO duty to show their audience just what a cracking example this is of the creative height that also produced Haydn’s more recallable ‘Lamentation’, ‘Farewell’, ‘Trauer’ and ‘La Passione’ named symphonies.
Haydn catches out and chastens conductors and orchestras complacent after conquering the romantic Symphonic everests. But the WSO were not among them. After that one rehearsal, they produced a highly effectively performance exuding the spirit and intent of these ‘Sturm und Drang’ adventures, all within the ‘limitations’ of using modern instruments. I do think the Minuet can be taken quicker than Gibbons’ Baroque norm here, because Haydn will have been open to doing so, and if Gibbons’ omission of the repeat in the finale seemed a pity, he was probably electing not to sap too much his strings.
The audience were fed food for thought. So much outer vigour, energy and imagination in this music only a few will have known, and such warmth in the slow movement. There was a sense of discovery for many - the object of the exercise - and Gibbons can confidently give them another from this startling chapter by one of classical music’s founding fathers. I learned from the programme notes that this is Haydn’s only symphonic Adagio in Ab.
I’m neglecting Boris Brovtsyn. This fellow is a miniature star still in the making. His day awaits but his increased radio appearances suggest a dawn. Absent here several years since a string of WSO appearances starting in the 00s that won him many admirers with stirring accounts of the most popular concertos, he returned with Mozart for the first time.
For what significant loss of hair may leave him short of in glamour (for some), his stage clothes compensate. Collarless top with iridescent single button, trousers and shoes, all in black texture and complimenting the exotic taste Mozart dishes up in the middle of his finale with the ‘Turkish’ episode. An endearing diminutive figure, Boris stands and moves in a way that you know his next utterance will arrest you with a masculine surety balanced with delicacy.
Brovtsyn is an artiste and interpreter of integrity and intensity but never sentimental , never over-spicing, never indulgent, always sensitive to where emotion and beauty lie, and also excitement and passion. His first movement had purpose and a bridled urgency. His Adagio was a gentle upward curve of delight reaching a glow in the second of the two Josef Joachim cadenzas he used. And his finale came with his own progressing varied decorations of the recurring tune which later suggested the inclination to tease or amuse.
Returning from a visit to the seafront, in cloth cap, violin packed on his back, wife at his side, he sprang onto stage and afterwards departed with a wave of his gift bottle of something, and a brandish of his violin at the happy audience in a gesture of gratitude and comradeship. Signing later an autograph, he writes left-handed. Just as Nicola Benedetti. Does that tell us anything?
Final concert this season – Sunday May 15 (2.45): ‘Fantastical Images’. The sparky first winner here of the 2010 Sussex international Piano Competition, Arta Arnicane, plays TWO concertos: Ravel’s fun one in G and William Alwyn’s No 1. Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries sets the afternoon into flight and Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky – Ravel) can only be followed by a summer intermission.
Next season dates (2.45 unless stated): October 23 (Hallowe’en), November 13 (Remembrance) December 6 (violinist Tasmin Little – 7.30), January 2 (Viennese), January 12 (Nicola Benedetti, Beethoven – 7.30), February 12, April 2 (Richard Hills, organ, and Keith Emerson tributes), May 7 (Sussex, the Sea, WSO).
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