Two markedly different works, each sharing a commemorative aspect, were given two very different performances, one somewhat ordinary, the other highly charged and blazing with conviction, and both under the baton of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s principal guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth. It certainly felt like a game of two halves – if unequal in length – with Bruckner’s symphony getting the lion’s share of consideration and involvement.

Guy Johnston, Mark Wiggleswoth and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

The evening began with Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor. Completed a year after the Great War, the work is often viewed as a memorial for a lost generation and has prompted some soloists to perform the piece as if it were a Requiem. Not so Guy Johnston, a late replacement for an indisposed Laura van der Heijden, who delivered a flowing, unsentimental account that conjured neither autumnal bonfires nor world weariness. 

The first movement felt understated (especially the BSO’s tuttis), Johnston gazing into the distance, seemingly unmoved by Elgar’s noble intensity. There was more to enjoy in the puckish delight of the neat and tidy Allegro molto, technical assurance paramount and balance from the orchestra well-judged. Expressive tenderness and delicacy of phrasing was in short supply in the elegiac Adagio, a movement that can generate dreamy introspection and unbearable poignancy, here more a one-dimensional languor, soul-searching and private intimacies mostly hidden from view. But my attention was gripped in the finale, the BSO players delivering fiery tuttis and Johnston emerging from the shadows to play with considerable panache, though neither party created an experience to stir any great emotion.

The emotional temperature considerably rose for Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (Novak edition), a work last given by the BSO nearly ten years ago and, with the stage now boasting four Wagner tubas, a palpable sense of excitement filled the hall. Coming in at just under an hour (rarely to be heard on recorded versions), this was a genial, sweeping account, not without authority or some measure of spirituality. The slightly too forthright opening measures didn’t quite suggest inspiration had come to the composer in a dream.. and while there was no out-of-body quality here, the first movement unfolded as a well-shaped traversal, vividly detailed, its ebb and flow contained in a satisfying forward momentum. Grandeur and lyricism were well-served, with rich string tone and glorious brass sonorities to the fore.

Intensity of expression, with strings compellingly tensile, characterised the deeply felt Adagio, its gemütlich tempo for the moderato now blissful with the arrival of Anna Pyne’s flute. Wonderfully transparent textures highlighted the movement’s solemnity and pastoralism, its cymbal-capped climax impactful if not shattering, its aftermath haunting in the baleful brass threnody conceived as a memorial to Richard Wagner who had died during its composition. The Scherzo was superbly propulsive, its dancing rhythms cavorting rather than stamping. Most impressive was the finale that was variously light on its feet and imposing, mood swings integrated with unerring control, the whole culminating in a majestic brass-led summation, dramatic and uplifting in equal measure.