Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations were composed in 1877 and premiered later the same year. The piece comprises 27 variations on the theme, “I am a fiddler, poor as can be” (text by Adolf Heyduk) with Dvořák borrowing the theme from a part-song he wrote earlier in the year. Overall, it received a good performance from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Rory MacDonald in which the skill and versatility of the respective orchestral sections was showcased. However, some of the work’s joie de vivre was lost by a slightly restrained performance and, in some of the variations, an overly legato treatment of the music.

Rory MacDonald © Benjamin Ealovega
Rory MacDonald
© Benjamin Ealovega

There were some great performances though from all sections of the orchestra – of particular note were Variation 12 in which leader Amyn Merchant gave a beautiful and expressive violin solo (although slightly over-powered by the horns) and Variation 13, in which the rumbustious energy of the variation was enjoyed to the full. This was followed by some light and sensitive playing in Variation 14 by Anna Pyne (solo flute) and again in Variation 18. In Variation 15, there was a good build-up to the vigour of Variation 16 which could have been a little more zestful. In Variation 19 we were treated to a nicely executed and enchanting waltz and in Variation 22, a lively and light-hearted romp. The extended finale is in fugal form – this was slightly lacking in real bite and muscular rhythm. However, the ending was well executed.

Dvořák’s Violin Concerto was composed in 1879-80 and premiered in 1883. Joseph Joachim (the noted violinist, conductor and composer) never actually performed the work (except in rehearsal) as he couldn’t come to terms with Dvořák’s unusual approach to the structure of the work. Simone Lamsma gave an excellent performance of the work with much tonal warmth and richness, as well as fine virtuosic playing, on the “Mlynarski” Stradivarius on loan from an anonymous benefactor.

The first movement has a very brief introduction, as well as a brief recapitulation and, although structurally unbalanced, still works very well in Dvořák’s hands. The solo violin enters more or less immediately; Lamsma’s entry was both crisp and lyrical with a dramatic flourish at the end of her phrases in the upper registers. These playing qualities very much set the scene for what was to be a lively, impassioned and virtuosic performance. Of particular note was the statement of the expressive second subject which was played with great sensitivity and warmth, MacDonald maintaining a good balance throughout between soloist and orchestra.

The second movement comprises a long, melodic and nostalgic outpouring. It was beautifully played with the gorgeous, mellow sound of the Stradivarius enhancing an already excellent solo performance. MacDonald and the BSO provided both sensitive and dramatic support throughout. The third movement is a carefree, high-spirited Rondo with clear links to Czech folk-song. The performance was energetic, light-hearted and well performed with great rhythmic drive from soloist and orchestra alike.

Sibelius' “Scene with Cranes” is a short sketch, which is rarely performed but was a most welcome forerunner to his mighty Fifth Symphony. The string section skilfully evoked the sense of calm and peace intended; the short clarinet passage in the centre of the work, representing the cry of the cranes, was nicely balanced without being too strident. Merchant’s delicate violin solo brought the piece to a peaceful end.

The Fifth Symphony reached its definitive form in 1919, after two revisions, originally being in four movements, finally in three. It’s a triumphant and dramatic work and the “Swan Hymn” in the final movement must surely be one of the best musical moments in the entire symphonic repertoire. MacDonald directed a safe and solid performance with some great dramatic moments, although in some cases, the approach was a little restrained.

In the first movement, MacDonald and the BSO skilfully created a satisfying build-up with great dynamic shading, the agitated strings generating real tension and anticipation for the climaxes to come. There was, perhaps, not quite enough forward momentum and sense of drama in the statement of the main theme to really set things on fire. The ensuing increase of tension in the second half would have benefited from more drive and purpose to really throw us into the coda; despite this, the transition from one to the other was well-executed with a dramatic and thrilling end to the movement.

The second movement comprises variations on a theme and is principally a calm interlude before the vigour of the finale, although there is one powerful climax introduced as a foretaste of things to come. MacDonald’s interpretation was perhaps a touch leisurely, making the movement seem overlong – although there was some excellent playing from the BSO –notably the woodwind and horns, as well as some crisp and delicate pizzicato from the strings.

The third movement is symphonic writing at its most thrilling, the main theme being inspired by the sight of sixteen swans in flight. Overall, I felt this movement was undersold until the very end, with a lack of real drive and purpose. The true grandeur of the “Swan Hymn” (which only comes once in this form) felt a little understated, but then MacDonald suddenly drove the orchestra into an exhilarating Coda with a crisply executed hammer-blow ending.