Swansongs at The Colston Hall, Bristol

revs bsoSally MatthewsBournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Kirill Karabits: Conductor
Sally Matthews: Soprano

BEETHOVEN:  Coriolan Overture
R STRAUSS:  Four Last Songs
SCHUBERT:  Symphony No. 9 in C Major “Great”

THE hard-working musicians of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra will have richly deserved their Easter break.  Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony is notorious for the demands it makes on the players, especially the wind and string sections.

When Mendelssohn attempted to mount performances in the 1840s, he was faced with musicians’ strikes, and rehearsals for the first London performance in 1856 were disrupted by the violinists bursting into laughter at the seemingly-endless persistence of their ostinato passages in the finale.  Yet the BSO is performing this much-loved monster four times in four nights!

The Bristol performance was the third, and Karabits’s reading was brisk, purposeful and clear, with a running time of 47 minutes compared to some recordings which approach an hour.  The brass in general and the trombones in particular excelled in producing a clearly-focussed performance, although the orchestra were not helped by the Colston Hall’s acoustic, which produces a rather subdued and unreverberant sound.

Before the interval we enjoyed a moving performance of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs.  These meditative swansongs, settings of poems by Hesse and Eichendorff , were written in the 1940s by the composer when he was in his mid-eighties.

We have to thank Mike Huntriss, the long-serving clarinettist, for requesting the performances. He is retiring, and had never before had a chance to play them.

Soprano Sally Matthews, a former Radio 3 New Generation artist, is perhaps best known for her outstanding performances in Mozart operas.  Acting on the advice of Bernard Haitink, she has taken time to include Strauss into her repertoire.  In recent years she has appeared in several Strauss operas. She had previously only performed the Four Last Songs as a late substitute with Sir Colin Davis.

Her performance was utterly compelling, avoiding the glutinous indulgence of some more overtly sentimental sopranos, to produce readings that were emotional but radiant and clear.  Karabits’s accompaniment was perfectly-judged, balancing the large orchestra sensitively, with the large brass section producing a glowing, warm sound which never swamped the voice.

Solos by Nicolas Fleury (horn) and Amyn Merchant (violin) also contributed strongly to making this a truly ensemble performance rather than a star vehicle for the soprano.

The concert had started with a compelling account of Beethoven’s dramatic Coriolan Overture.  Just as was the case with a performance of Leonore No 3 a few weeks ago, this was anything but a make-weight: Karabits’s Beethoven is always immaculately balanced and prepared: fast, dramatic and intense.


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