Had Beethoven died at 31, there would be no Eroica Symphony, no Violin Concerto. Had he died at 35, we’d be without Fidelio and two-thirds of the string quartets. Schubert and Mozart, respectively, made only these ages, well short of Beethoven’s 56. They died before most composers reach their “middle” period, yet they brought the substance and scale to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Anvil concert, alongside a relatively rare slice of “early” Beethoven.  

Nicholas McGegan © Steve J Sherman
Nicholas McGegan
© Steve J Sherman

The young Mozart practically spewed out symphonies, divertimenti and serenades, though one example of the latter outshines the popularity of most of the rest. It’s easy to snipe at the ubiquity of Eine kleine Nachtmusik – answers to the questions “what’s the most well-known piece by Mozart?” and  “which piece by Mozart would you happily never hear again?” could easily coincide – but that very over-familiarity can make it a difficult piece to perform. Conductor Nicholas McGegan’s solution was to dispense with the pretence that any hidden depths lay within and instead keep it stylish and lively. While he has history with 18th-century repertoire, McGegan didn’t have the BSO’s strings adopt the vibrato-less baroqueisms that seem to be creeping ever further into symphonic performance practice. Instead, the BSO kept textures light and clear, particularly noticeably in the interplay of inner and outer string parts in the concluding Rondo. 

At the other end of the programme, a rather more serious proposition in four movements: Schubert’s reasonably early but oh-so-mature Fifth Symphony. A product of Schubert’s 19th year, the Fifth demonstrates the charms of a composer who never seems to have suffered the stylistic growing pains of a man struggling for a mature voice. It was here that McGegan drew the best from the BSO, letting the music flow, bringing it to life by making the most of dynamic contrasts and pointed accents. He saw no need to tug at the tempi, and the orchestra responded with playing of considerable subtlety, a case in point being the hushed but nuanced sound of the strings giving space to the conversations of wind instruments as the first movement slipped from exposition to development.

Between symphony and serenade, two soloists made persuasive cases for works composed by Mozart and Beethoven in their late 20s – that quirk of length of life making one a mature work and the other a product of relative youth. But surely everyone knows that Mozart was ever the child, as shown in Amadeus? That part of the Peter Schaffer’s brilliant but historically-dubious play (and film) does ring true, and it was hard to question the composer’s impish humour when hearing Nicolas Fleury’s performance of Mozart’s Third Horn Concerto, complete in 1784. Fleury, principal horn of the BSO, made playful, light work of the piece. His nudging, suggestive phrasing had a delightful way of trailing off, and his whole performance demonstrated understated personality and beautiful, clean tone that only rarely rose to forcefulness.

Fleury was back with his section as soprano Kate Royal plunged into the turmoil of the wronged lover in Beethoven’s vocal scena Ah! Perfido (Ah! Deceiver), from 1796. Emotion changes like the gears of a barrelling car here; disbelief gives way to fury, to expressions of self-sacrifice, to grief and then self-pity. Royal navigated these with care, finding greatest identification with the drained resignation that concludes the opening recitative, though her restrained physical acting left the bulk of the dramatic work to her voice alone. That Beethoven’s attractive scena gives us hints of a greater career to come is, of course, the luxury of hindsight. I left, as so often, wondering what his companions-in-programme might also have done with 56 full years.