BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
October 20 2022
Review: William Ruff
Youthful energy combines with the wisdom of old age
At first sight the programme the BBC Philharmonic brought with them on Thursday night looks fairly safe and straightforward. However, beneath the exterior of Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Walton’s 1st Symphony lurk some interesting challenges.
The test for any conductor in the Dukas is to make it seem fresh and surprising. Ever since Mickey Mouse played the role of the apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia, the piece has been one of the best-known in the repertoire, cementing Dukas’ reputation as a one-hit wonder who destroyed most of his works as being not up to the same high standard. However, Ben Gernon didn’t for one moment fall into the over-familiarity trap. In his (and the BBC Phil’s) hands it became a highly vivid miniature Wagnerian opera, complete with motifs which develop and combine ingeniously.
The spell-casting was thrilling, the broom came to life and sloshed the water around with apparently unstoppable abandon. If you remember the cartoon, you will know that when the broom is desperately split in two it simply means double the trouble – until the climax when flood disaster is averted only when the Sorcerer returns, casts the right spell and sends his apprentice packing. The whole magic story is told through good tunes and brilliant orchestration. It needs a virtuoso orchestra to do it justice and that’s what it received in this Nottingham performance.
There’s a particular challenge to playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto in Nottingham, the home town of cello superstar Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Classical music lovers in the city unsurprisingly have opinions about cellists in general, especially when they are playing Elgar.
The general consensus seemed to be that there is another astonishing 23-year-old cellist rising to stardom. And his background is yet one more proof that Elgar’s concerto belongs to the world and not just to Britain. Zlatomir Fung is a half-Bulgarian, half-Chinese American, a citizen of the world and a young artist with deep insights into a work written towards the end of its composer’s life. The tersely poignant first movement was followed by a breakneck, skittering scherzo, while the intense Adagio, with its heart-rending appeals, was followed by a boisterous finale, the melancholy mood returning just before the end to be dismissed by a determination not to succumb to sorrow. The audience’s warm applause was rewarded by an encore by Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova.
The challenge in Walton’s 1st Symphony stems from the same challenge which the composer himself faced. The first three movements are fierce and stormy, growing out of a turbulent relationship he had at the time. When the time eventually came to change girlfriends the symphony ground to a halt until a new woman inspired him to complete it. The problem was that the new girlfriend was much more easy-going, so the fourth movement can seem a bit pallid in contrast to all the fire, malice and melancholy that precedes it.
This doesn’t have to be the case – and it wasn’t in this BBC Phil performance. Conductor Ben Gernon made the join invisible. The opening movement maintained a scorching intensity throughout, the scherzo lived up to its ‘malicious’ label and the slow movement had all the passion you could ask for. The finale, far from seeming a damp squib, didn’t loosen up in the slightest and seemed a natural, powerful culmination of the whole piece.
If you missed it live, it’s well worth catching the concert on the BBC iPlayer.
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Ben Gernon, conductor
Zlatimir Fung, cello