Elgar is usually spoken of as the quintessential English composer. Yet in his music one looks in vain for references to native folksong or extended pastoral interludes. In terms of a wider perspective it is a continental influence, chiefly that of Wagner and Brahms, which is most apparent. Nowhere more so than in the Violin Concerto in B minor, premiered in the autumn of 1910. When Kreisler (its dedicatee) first played it through, he told the composer: “You have written an immortal work.”

Nicola Benedetti, Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO © BBC | Mark Allan
Nicola Benedetti, Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO
© BBC | Mark Allan

In this performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo, with Nicola Benedetti as the committed soloist, it was the spirit of Wagner that made itself immediately felt. It was almost like hearing a companion piece to The Flying Dutchman, so storm-tossed were the textures in the long orchestral introduction, the wind and brass not peeping out shyly from behind the curtain but instead standing proud at the open window. Not much Edwardian restraint and moderation here, more a full-throated attack on the senses. Throughout the evening hearing the BBCSO in full cry was quite a revelation: the players made a powerful and thrilling sound under their chief conductor. And yet, in that first movement, there was something of a mismatch between soloist and conductor, Benedetti fully respecting Elgar’s favourite nobilmente marking on her first entry, while in Oramo’s hands the tempestuous seas were scarcely kept at bay. Super-charged in many respects this undoubtedly was, but without reverential feeling for the majesty and grandeur of the score.

In the Andante that followed soloist and conductor were more closely aligned. Benedetti offered in the sublime B flat major melody that opens the slow movement a huskiness, a smoky quality in her playing which was most alluring and which in its sensuousness dissipated any thoughts of cloying sentimentality. Later, when the solo violin restated the main theme, the sound of her instrument floated serenely above a fine cushion of orchestral strings woven by Oramo, as if to underline the notion of being gently led into an inner sanctum.

In the concluding Allegro molto Elgar requires impressive technical precision and colour from his soloist, the arabesques, arpeggios, scales and chords tripping off the instrument in an eye-catching display of violinistic pyrotechnics. These elements, together with the additional demands of a long accompanied cadenza (and here Elgar drew on Schumann’s cello concerto as a model) require a heroic and forthright spirit, which Benedetti fully embraced over the course of the 50-minute performance, even if this was sometimes at the expense of beauty of line. Elgar’s violin concerto is a rare visitor to the concert platform these days (unlike the cello concerto), and it was good to be reminded yet again by Oramo’s unconventional orchestral direction that Elgar was not principally an English composer, but anchored firmly in the late-Romantic mainstream of continental music.

The big, open-throated sound, with rhythmically taut playing from agile and athletic strings gleaming like blades of naked steel, was similarly a feature of Oramo’s approach to Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony. This opened with all the ominous import of a D minor work, accentuated by a delicious upward sweep from cellos and basses. Having heard a number of performances weighed down by a plushness of string textures, it was refreshing to hear something which in the way it mimicked the sounds of Slav voices was surely much closer to what the composer had in mind.

A shadow caused by the recent death of Dvořák’s mother and eldest child lies over this work, so much so that in the slow movement he appended his own footnote to the score: “From the sad years.” This BBC performance restored the original version from which Dvořák cut 40 bars after the London premiere. It is easy to see why. Here it undoubtedly lent a more expansive feel to the Andante sostenuto (later marked Poco adagio), and allowed the sensitively shaped contributions from wind and brass to break through the string lines like shafts of sunlight piercing an occluded sky. However, it also extended this movement by a further three minutes, making it the longest of the entire work.

Some conductors are prone to whipping up the excitement in the Scherzo. Not Oramo though, who knows that extra vitality is not a condition of speed. The character of the Furiant, on which this movement is based, emerges more clearly, and the cross-rhythms more cleanly, at a steady basic tempo: country dances, even in the heartlands of Bohemia, were never designed for virtuoso footwork. If at times, especially in the Trio section, the sense of heartache was underplayed, there was plenty of warmth in the phrasing to admire. This carried over into the finale, where with exuberantly whooping horns and a resplendent sheen to the ensemble work a state of exultation crowned Dvořák’s greatest symphonic achievement.

****1