After the great success of Eugene Onegin and the touching concert in memory of Claudio Abbado, John Axelrod was on the podium of the San Carlo Orchestra for a third time in a row, for a new round of the 2013-14 concert season. Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 1 in D major, “Classical” is one of the most familiar works in his production. Together with the Fifth, it easily obscures the rest of Prokofiev’s symphonies in terms popularity. It was subtitled “Classical” by the author because it was intended to imitate the style of Haydn, both in the proportions and the harmonic structure, seen through the glass of modernity. In my opinion this is the interpretive slant which should be given to the score.

John Axelrod © Véronique Jourdain Artists Management
John Axelrod
© Véronique Jourdain Artists Management

The execution by Axelrod was a little perplexing, as not all the Texan conductor’s intentions were clear from the start. In the first movement, the orchestra sounded too cold and controlled, while the Larghetto second movement was taken at a faster pace than usual, thus resulting in a lack of lyricism. Happily, the Gavotte maintained its appeal, and the Finale was as boisterous as one could hope for.

Prokofiev’s symphonies necessitate great care of detail and a strong commitment to be effective and an ideal performance of the “Classical” should be able to capture the essence of both Prokofiev and Haydn. Frankly, although the orchestra played with precision, this was not the case. The strings were fine, particularly at the end of the second movement, but there was some fine-tuning required in the woodwinds.

Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for winds in E flat major was written for wind virtuosi that the composer had met at the Mannheim Orchestra. The authenticity of the piece is still debated nowadays, but the lovely Mozartean melodies it contains leave little doubt about its ingenuity. Soloists Domenico Sarcina, Luca Sartori, Ricardo Serrano and Mauro Russo were drawn from the orchestra. They played well, showing individual character and excellent cohesion, with sound contributions particularly from oboe and clarinet. Only orchestral tutti occasionally felt restrained as they lacked the effervescence and joviality which are Mozart’s trademarks.

The Adagio, even though not one of Mozart's most intense slow movements, contains captivating melodies and a mild tenderness which Axelrod righteously emphasised. The cheerful theme of the finale shone bright and Axelrod’s lively tempi prevented easy-going timbres in it becoming overly sweet. The orchestra carried out its supporting role with adequate commitment.

The high point of the programme was Brahms Symphony no. 2 in D major. The first movement was quite remarkable, with melodic lines presented with relaxed ease.  Here, occasional problems in determining the line of interpretation became apparent as Axelrod’s meticulous direction led him to over-exaggerate unnecessary details.

The slow second movement, which has a  huge rhythmic and metric complexity, was played with energy, mainly focusing on the strings but, however pleasant and soothing, it lacked the necessary gravity. The conductor’s interpretation was convincing in the Allegretto, but in some passages the orchestra did not sound together, and Axelrod, chose only to take care only of the main music lines. In the magniloquent Allegro con Spirito finale, the conductor continued accenting of the main lines, until the blaze of brass in the coda ended the symphony triumphantly.

The Second Symphony has a reputation for being the lightest of Brahms’ symphonies, yet the score is influenced by the author's melancholic personality: the peaceful flow of the “Lullaby” theme in the first movement and the overall lyricism have a tempestuous development resulting in rough lines and dark colours. Under Axelrod’s baton, the underlying melancholy and depth were somewhat stressed, but more often the music sounded restrained. Nonetheless, Axelrod was greeted by generous applause at the concert's conclusion, in recognition of his generous commitment and for the excellent work he has done in Naples.