Despite the inclusion of a ‘Scottish’ fantasy in a concert billed as ‘The Italian’, this was always going to be a concert for those with a taste for nineteenth century central European music featuring dramatic and romantic strings. Dvořák, Bruch and Mendelssohn were masters of writing for the string section and the success of this concert depended on how well Alpesh Chauhan could unify and exploit the CBSO strings. In this endeavour he triumphed.

Alpesh Chauhan and the CBSO © Operaomnia
Alpesh Chauhan and the CBSO
© Operaomnia

The matinee performance began with Dvořák’s Othello Overture, Op.93. The opening brass pianissimo chord was solid, without hesitation, and the subsequent entry of the strings hovered for a moment underneath before breaking through to establish the theme.  As far as overtures go this is a slow-burner. It has rather a sombre feel, as the title suggests it might, but it also has a strong narrative and several dramatic turns. Chauhan interpreted these brilliantly, allowing the brass and woodwind to suggest the unfolding story while the strings set tone and atmosphere. In doing so he maintained emotive interest from the brooding start to the heroic yet tragic climax.  

Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Op,46 came next, featuring the concert’s soloist, Laurence Jackson. I was instantly won over by his warm and velvety tone. His phrasing achieved both comfort and tension, and his interpretation was simultaneously intellectual and heartfelt, without the excessive sentimentality too often associated with works such as this. He made his technique look effortless, particularly his fluttering bird-song trills. Importantly, he did not feel the need to thrash the more rhythmical motif of the scherzo, nor force the pomp of the strident warlike motif of the Finale: Allegro Guerriero. His unity with the orchestra was tangible throughout, but two highlights stood out for me. First were some delightfully echoed and paired phrases with the flute. Second was in the finale where I was so transfixed that he was half-way through a cadenza before I became conscious that the orchestra had stopped playing. Chauhan brought them back in with a breath-like string pianissimo before the return to the militaristic motif brought an extremely enjoyable first half to an end.

Dvořák’s Romance in F Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op.11, was the second work in the programme from the Czech composer. In some ways it felt like an encore piece that could have been squeezed into the first half. It was played with a smaller orchestra and had a more intimate feel than the Bruch. It gave Laurence Jackson another opportunity to indulge us, and for that alone I was grateful. However, by the time it concluded I was ready for something else.

Indeed, my only real criticism of this concert is that the programme lacked sufficient contrast. The first three pieces were similar in genre and approach with plenty of minor keys and sombre reflective moods, and therefore Felix Mendelsohn’s Symphony No. 4 in A Major (Italian), Op.90, was a welcome change when it came. However, it is such a well-known and popular symphony there was a doubt in my mind whether the CBSO could do anything with it that I hadn’t heard before. That doubt was dispelled almost instantly. This performance abounded with a vitality and vibrancy that made me listen with refreshed ears. It occurred to me that the conductor had harnessed control of the string section like a charioteer, riding all the horses individually but yet combining them as a team. This was the best I have heard the string section of the CBSO, and I have heard them many times.

Yet it was not just a good performance from the strings. I have already noted principal flute, Marie-Christine Zupancić, for her echoing and pairing of the violin in the Bruch. She shone again with some wonderful playing in the Mendelsohn. I should also mention the sublime sound of Oliver Janes’ clarinet, and some perfectly judged French horn by Elspeth Dutch in the symphony.  

It was interesting to watch the relationship and rapport between conductor and orchestra in this concert. The CBSO looked totally at ease with him, clearly knowing what he wanted from them, yet being extremely attentive and responding to his slightest gesture. Alpesh Chauhan has been with the CBSO since playing principal cello in the youth orchestra, he was the CBSO’s first Conducting Fellow receiving mentoring from Andris Nelsons and Edward Gardner, and he was appointed Assistant conductor in 2014. He is becoming a conductor of international stature now, and judging by the way he handled the CBSO in this concert, especially the string section, I wager that this twenty-six year old is destined for a great and glittering future.