Sir Edward Elgar is, for many, the quintessential English composer. Photographs of him riding his bicycle (Mr Phoebus) or playing golf or striding across the Malvern Hills indelibly link him with the English countryside, while the Pomp and Circumstance Marches evoke London’s pageantry. However, for many listeners, Elgar doesn’t sound English at all – he didn’t use folksong as Vaughan Wllliams or Holst did – but is more closely linked to a central European tradition. His overture In the South sounds as if it could have been composed by Richard Strauss, its open-hearted, symphonic sweep very much in the style of Don Juan. Elgar is placed at the heart of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s programming next season, putting him very much into a European context.

Statue of Sir Edward Elgar with his bicycle, Mr Phoebus © Wikicommons
Statue of Sir Edward Elgar with his bicycle, Mr Phoebus
© Wikicommons
In the South is subtitled ‘Alassio’ after the Italian town on the Riviera where Elgar stayed during a family holiday. Alexander Shelley pairs it with Strauss’ earlier tone poem Aus Italien, also inspired by an Italian visit. Strauss inserted the melody of Funiculì, funiculà into the fourth movement, thinking it was a Neapolitan song. It wasn’t and the composer Luigi Denza sued him! Nevertheless, there are great parallels between In the South and Aus Italien, which will doubtless be drawn out in performances in Poole and Exeter in their concert entitled “Roman Holiday”.

Apart from Elgar’s, one of the great cello concertos is that in B minor by Antonin Dvořák. It’s surely no accident, therefore, that Daniel Müller-Schott performs the Elgar in the same programme as Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, drawing out those central European flavours. Elgar’s First Symphony was praised by German conductor Hans Richter from the start. At a rehearsal, Richter addressed the London Symphony Orchestra with the words: “Gentlemen, let us now rehearse the greatest symphony of modern times, written by the greatest modern composer – and not only in this country.” Karl-Heinz Steffens prefaces Elgar’s First Symphony with Wagner’s Prelude to Parsifal and Schumann’s Piano Concerto – as Germanic as you could get.

Perhaps the most ‘English’ of Elgar’s works programmed next season is the evergreen Enigma Variations, where a wistful theme is treated to a series of variations, each in the style of one of Elgar’s friends, neatly connected to an anecdote or character description. Ironically, this most English of works helped establish Elgar’s reputation internationally. David Hill conducts this gem in Truro, Barnstaple, Chichester and Salisbury.

Kirill Karabits © Sasha Gusov
Kirill Karabits
© Sasha Gusov
Away from Elgar, Kirill Karabits champions a number of orchestral ‘Cinderellas’, works which don’t appear too often on concert programmes but deserve a wider hearing. William Walton’s First Symphony is a tremendous work, indebted to Sibelius in its influence, but with a gloriously powerful finale. Many consider it to be the finest English symphony since Elgar’s. Walton’s Second is rarely performed, so it’s good to see Karabits also programming it in the season.

Aram Khachaturian often gets a bad press beyond his popular Sabre Dance and his Spartacus Adagio. His symphonic work has been dismissed as brash and there’s certainly a degree of unsubtlety to a lot of it. The Violin Concerto shares much of this boldness, but is infectiously catchy, with its stamping Armenian folk rhythms. Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulović tackles this mighty concerto in an evening entitled Fireworks from Armenia. This also includes a work by Kara Kareyev, an Azerbaijani composer also from the same Soviet period as Khachaturian. Karabits himself is Ukrainian and his father was also a conductor and composer. This season, Karabits explores his Ukrainian heritage with the overture to Taras Bulba by Mykola Lysenko, an opera which greatly impressed Tchaikovsky. Appropriately, it is programmed as a curtain opener before Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto.

Among the other concert rarities next season are Martinů’s Fourth Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Fifth – proof that it doesn’t all have to be Beethoven Fifths and Tchaikovsky Pathétiques when putting together programmes.

Serving not just its Poole base, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra tours vast swathes of the southwest of England, often being the only professional orchestra reaching some cities. Touring has built an enormous audience, loyal to the orchestra and to its talented principal conductor. Touring is, therefore, a crucial part of its existence and next season it will visit some twenty towns and cities, from Truro and Exeter to Winchester and Chichester. It even calls in to Leeds next spring for a Verdi Requiem… a long trip from the south coast!

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This preview was sponsored by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.