How reassuring it is to return to the conventional format of overture, concerto and symphony. No feeling of being short-changed here from a tripartite formula that, in recent times, has been almost abandoned. And what a pleasure too, to hear a relatively unfamiliar but outstanding violinist in Francesca Dego. Italian born and already impressing with a growing discography, she is a soloist of the front rank. On the podium, Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza (like Dego, making his Anvil debut) was another unfamiliar figure, whose smiles brought out some fine playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in an evening of music showcasing the music of three composers all born within a decade of each other.  

Francesca Dego
© Davide Cerati

Parisian Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) belongs to the generation of 19th-century female composers that include Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann. While less renowned than her German counterparts, she has the distinction of being the first female piano professor at the Paris Conservatoire and has been described as a major musical figure hiding in plain sight (a good marketing phrase if nothing else). Something of a pioneer, her Overture no. 2 in E flat major, (1834) is the second of what was then a rare genre, one entirely devoid of any operatic or theatrical association. It was given a vigorous outing, where its Rossini-like brio and colourful detail were keenly underlined. But there was an undeniable rhetoric to it that will keep the work tucked away in a drawer marked obscure abstract overtures.

There followed one of the finest performances of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor I’d heard in the concert hall for many years. There was nothing routine in this account, its performance meticulously prepared yet with an ink-still wet quality from the soloist. Dego combines a formidable technique with exceptional musicianship and brought to the first movement passion, playfulness and rumination, all delivered with a sureness of tone whether richly sonorous or silvery. From her Francesco Ruggeri violin (1697) she is incapable of producing an ugly sound. One only regretted the absence of a break after the first movement as this listener wanted to applaud after such a focussed performance. She was sweet toned in the wistful Andante, her ‘song without words’ finely spun and holding us all in thrall with her magic, all seemingly effortlessly achieved. A cheeky grin accompanied the throwaway gestures at the start of the finale (not as homicidal as some accounts can be), Dego now demonstrably enjoying the movement’s unbuttoned character, its near ceaseless momentum dispatched with aplomb. Throughout, the players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra were exemplary collaborators, with de Souza allowing detail to emerge, horns given their moment in the sun, and fashioning a breezy, well-balanced account.  

By contrast, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique seemed a bloodless affair. It’s a work of startling imagery and here, despite much refinement and efficiency, there was something contained, emotions never quite spilling over. Gossamer strings brought languor and mystery to Réveries, and the ensuing elation in the Allegro agitato brought expressive, polished playing, but I didn’t sense Berlioz’s fevered mind, those delirious ‘agonies and jealous rages’. Charm arrived in the ball scene, yet there was only a hint of swirling ballgowns, the whole rendered with warmth rather than exhilaration. Cor anglais and offstage oboe caught the ear and made companionable shepherds in the Scène aux champs and, while quiet passages failed to sustain my attention, the thunderstorm was thrilling. Suitably baleful horns initiated the March to the Scaffold, wonderfully paced here, with confident, gutsy playing from incisive brass, shrieking woodwind and a brutal execution. The Witches' Sabbath was no less impactful, its fantasies well executed, even if its dramatic clangour needed more sweep and sorcery to create a truly lasting impression.