Friday night’s appearance of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the Anvil was the third and final outing of their programme entitled “Elgar Unmasked” directed by the 69 year old Vassily Sinaisky. Whilst he is no stranger to Elgar (having conducted the majority of his orchestral works with the BBC Philharmonic), Sinaisky nonetheless is more readily associated, though not exclusively, with music from his native Russia. So it was with interest to hear his account of the composer’s Symphony no. 2 in E flat major, and one set against a recording legacy by the likes of Barenboim, Boult and Handley.

Vassily Sinaisky © Marco Borggreve
Vassily Sinaisky
© Marco Borggreve
Completed a little over a century ago in 1911, Elgar’s lavishly orchestrated symphony was dedicated to King Edward VII, but behind its musical complexity and surface grandeur there lies a deep emotional core, its outward passion permeated by wistful uncertainties and deep solemnity. Conducting without a baton, Sinaisky and the BSO had no difficulty in harnessing Elgar’s dramatic power, but in this overblown reading the work’s gravitas and nobilemente remained largely hidden. A more flexible and occasionally reined-in approach would have been welcome. In a work already laden with instrumental detail, individual colouring was often absent, particularly from the woodwind.

These problems were most apparent in the Larghetto – the movement with the widest dynamic range. Despite some glorious climaxes, aided and abetted by the timpanist (Geoff Prentice), the movement’s elegiac character never quite emerged: its initial pianissimo returning only periodically and then lacking intensity. Observing Elgar’s instructions in a work as densely scored as this one (and he was famously meticulous in this regard) requires particular care. It was a pity then that from the entry of the trombones near the start of the last movement a dynamic pile-up all too soon created an orchestral soup rather than satisfyingly balanced textures that might have better served Elgar’s sweeping narrative. The opening Allegro vivace was fashioned with suitable gusto, well-paced and ardent, perhaps too much so at times. It was in the third movement (Rondo: Presto) that the orchestra were at their best, where clean intonation and crisply rhythmic articulation (notably from the brass) were admirable. Sinaisky handled the changeable moods well and the BSO produced some wonderfully exhilarating playing.

Forming the first part of the concert was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major where Kirill Gerstein was an assured soloist. This Russian-born and US-trained pianist has won huge praise for his performances of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and, like André Previn and Wynton Marsalis, he is also a jazz musician. This versatility aside, his expressive range in the G major concerto might have been broader despite possessing a formidable technique. This was clear from the ease with which he dispatched the first movement’s scale passages and arpeggio figuration. Whilst Gerstein’s clarity of articulation was impressive, a little more variety of tone would have reminded us that this is the most benevolent of Beethoven’s concertos. Its poetic lyricism even in the slow movement here was determinedly unsentimental, with phrases needing more shape and warmth to persuade me that Sinaisky and Gerstein were fully in accord with the composer. The Rondo finale found Gerstein and the orchestra in a better light, its witty dialogues bringing Beethoven back to life and the performance beginning to acquire some personality. After much energetic applause the soloist returned to the platform to give Bach’s Three-Part Invention in E flat BWV791 – an ear-catching performance played with much welcome sensitivity.