BRITTEN: Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge
MENDELSSOHN: Piano Concerto No. 1
MENDELSSOHN: Overture: Fingal’s Cave
DEBUSSY: La Mer
KEES Bakels, now approaching his 70th birthday, has been a regular and welcome guest conductor in Poole for many years. He and the orchestra were clearly very comfortable in one another’s company as he led them through this eclectic and variegated programme.
The BSO strings had the platform to themselves in Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations, written by the then-unknown 24-year-old composer in 1937. It consists of a series of affectionate parodies of various musical forms and styles, in which Britten (a viola player himself) draws a wonderful variety of tone and colour from the string orchestra. The violas were particular stars here, with a warm, burnished tone, and a chance to pluck their instruments like ukuleles in one variation.
Bakels welcomed fellow-Dutchman Ronald Brautigam, another regular Lighthouse guest, to the platform for the first Mendelssohn Piano Concerto. With his impressive Beethovenian mane of silver hair, Brautigam looks every inch a classical musician, and gave a forthright and engaged performance of this somewhat neglected and substantial masterpiece. Bakels drove the music forward in the last movement at a cracking tempo, with Brautigam unleashing seemingly-impossible cascades of cleanly-articulated notes.
After the interval Bakels introduced us to a Dutch performance convention – playing the ‘watery’ (as he put it) Fingal’s Cave and La Mer as a kind of continuous nautical quasi-symphony. The Mendelssohn surged and rolled with a steady momentum, with long-breathed passages within a classical sonata structure. With the Debussy, classical form is left behind in a constantly-shifting wash of meticulously-orchestrated sound. The music evolves in an organic way, or to change the metaphor, develops like the weather. The paradox is that this natural feeling can only be obtained by the most rigorous concentration on releasing the sounds so precisely imagined and annotated in the score by the composer. The music defies analysis and evaluation. Going with the flow, I found my eyes racing around the orchestra trying to work out the source of each gorgeous and unique sound. Then I would close my eyes to concentrate, only for late Turner seascapes to flash upon the inward eye. Bakels clearly loves the music – he has recently conducted the South Netherlands, Irish Youth and Royal College of Music orchestras in performances – and by their applause, the orchestra fully appreciated his direction. An unforgettable night in a so-far outstanding season.