Whilst the pieces played in the first half of tonight’s programme had no direct link to the sea, the composer’s featured, Britten and Mendelssohn, both had a great affection for it. The Lighthouse, Poole – home to the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – is also the largest coastal town and seaport in the county of Dorset, so it seemed all the more pertinent for the orchestra to be playing Fingal’s Cave and La Mer. Kees Bakels introduced the pieces, wryly observing that they had a very “watery” theme; he requested, in accordance with Dutch tradition, that there should be no break between the pieces, assuring us that we would enjoy the opening to Debussy’s work even more this way – as indeed we did!

Ronald Brautigam © Marco Borggreve
Ronald Brautigam
© Marco Borggreve

First, though, came the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra by Benjamin Britten, a tribute to his teacher, first performed in 1937 at the Salzburg Festival; they comprise a set of variations and represent different aspects of Bridge’s character (noted in parentheses below).

The ethos of the piece is its exuberant rhythmic drive and energy which the BSO, under Bakels, delivered most adroitly. The dramatic Introduction (and concluding Fugue/Finale), included sections showcasing warm and delicate solo quartet playing with orchestra, while the following reflective Adagio (depth/integrity) provided a highly atmospheric interlude. The jaunty and energetic March (energy), was played with especial vigour by the cello section. The contrasting Romance (charm/wit) was the epitome of elegance. The players were clearly having great fun in the Aria (humour), where second violins, violas and cellos are directed to strum their instruments like a guitar. The Bourrée (tradition) was both crisp and vigorous (with fine solo violin playing), the Walzer (enthusiasm/gaiety) was played with a subtle rubato and rumbustious elegance, followed by a frenetic and spirited Moto perpetuo (vitality/enthusiasm). The Funeral March (sympathy/understanding) was expressive and emotional, while the Chant (reverence) provided a moment of calm before the vigour of the Fugue, delivered with elan and accuracy. The Finale was played with sensitivity and created a truly atmospheric conclusion; a finely handled tempi transition at the very end rounded off a superb performance.

Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in G minor was completed in 1831, premiered in Munich by the composer the same year. Ronald Brautigam gave an assured and virtuosic performance – his was a very full and romantic interpretation of the work, in contrast to many lighter and flashier readings.  After the briefest of orchestral introductions, played with great drama, the piano enters with an energetic first theme, played and developed with great showmanship. The second, and more lyrical second theme, is soon stated and developed, Brautigam luxuriating in the tranquillity of this expressive interlude. The opening vigour of the movement soon reappears with the development and shortened recapitulation, both being played with great dexterity.

A crisp fanfare of trumpets and horns led us seamlessly into the Andante, which was a relaxed performance, filled with warmth and subtle rubato; there was some particularly fine lyricism from the violas and cellos.

The fanfare once more heralds the arrival of the delightful final movement. Brautigam’s playing was crisp and rhythmic on the one hand and deliciously fluid on the other. Bakels keen sense of fun really came to the fore, providing the lightest and most playful of punctuation from the BSO. The whole was dispatched by all with great panache.

The Hebrides Overture by Mendelssohn, more commonly known as Fingal’s Cave, inspired by a visit to the caverns of Staffa in the Scottish Highlands, was premiered in 1832. Bakels gave a fluid and well-paced interpretation with sensitive dynamic shading throughout. The more relaxed second theme was warmly played by cellos (being doubled by bassoons); of particular note was the light and delicate solo clarinet repetition of this theme later in the piece. The build-up to the dramatic climax, followed by the gently ending whisper, was smoothly handled.

La Mer is a unique and ground-breaking masterpiece of orchestral writing. “De l'aube à midi sur la mer” (From Dawn to midday on the sea) begins in a very quiet and tranquil mood, depicting sunrise. Bakels ensured a measured accelerando into the main movement. The intricacies of Debussy’s exquisite part-writing were played with crystalline clarity; from the rippling wave patterns in the strings and woodwind to the rise and fall of the waves with arpeggiated figures for the harp. Of particular note was the delicate playing of the cor anglais and trumpet which announced a tranquil theme, as well as the smooth, well-balanced playing of the four horns which introduced the main theme. Bakels skilfully increased the energy and pace of the music, building to the immensity of the ocean climax and a thrilling conclusion.

The scherzo “Jeux de vagues” (Play of the Waves) represents the amazing patterns created by sunlight dancing on the sea. Fragments of melodies are introduced throughout the movement, never quite wanting to be tied down and developed before others are introduced; the inherent restless energy was delivered with great clarity, poise and dynamic shading. Bakels ensured the lightning-fast tempo changes were well-executed, and the accelerando to the climax created a wonderful joie de vivre, whilst maintaining the incessant drive to the climax.  A well-handled tranquil coda provided a moment of calm before the storm to follow.

“Dialogue du vent et de la mer” (Dialogue of the wind and the sea) brings us face-to-face with the power of the sea. Debussy creates cohesion in the work by using material from the first movement; the adroitly played, muted trumpet solo, as well as a much repeated and restless two-note figure, crisply and rhythmically played by strings, as Bakels constantly drove the music forward. A delicate moment of calm was beautifully executed as violins played at the top of their register whilst flute and piccolo played a haunting, other-worldly melody in a tranquil interlude. However, the relentless maelstrom was soon unleashed, gradually building to a thrilling climax with a final, perfectly-judged slam of the timpani.