The evening began with five of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, arranged by Dvořák (nos. 17-21).  Originally composed for piano duet and finally completed in 1880, this particular subset, provided a neat link with Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony, performed in the second half of the concert (the finale of which was clearly inspired by Brahms). Brahms was particularly fond of gypsy music and, in response to this, he wrote the 21 Hungarian Dances (most being energetic and mercurial in nature).

Cristian Măcelaru © Sorin Popa
Cristian Măcelaru
© Sorin Popa

The first two dances (17 and 18) felt a little like the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was warming up for the evening and the second half of the concert season ahead. More could have been made of the bold lilting rhythm and playfulness of dance no. 19 and, whilst the dynamic shading and tempi variations in no. 20 were skilfully handled, more fun and drama could have been had with the slower sections, which would have generated a more exotic and sensual feel to the music. Overall, the orchestra gave a slightly restrained performance of the dances, excepting no. 21, where it treated us to a very exuberant and most welcome performance.

As John Lill commented in a fascinating pre-concert interview (in a video clip available on the BSO's website), Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major is one of the least performed of the five piano concertos. He said that Beethoven still remains one of his very favourite composers, describing his music “a direct force of good with no artificiality”. The Second Piano Concerto was completed in 1795 (before the first), although he did revise it in 1798 (re-published in 1801) which technically makes it a “later” work than the first – hence the established numbering. The concerto is classical in structure with a refined rococo grace, very much paying homage to both Mozart and Haydn. However, it showcases the genesis of Beethoven’s mature style with unexpected  twists and turns, rising scales and startling modulations, as well as the much freer use of the orchestra.

Lill’s presence at the piano is always one of great calm and repose, as he sits quietly waiting to play. He delivered his performance with the weight of years of experience behind him, without show, flash or artifice. In the first movement, his playing was crisp and his interpretation authentic, with a lovely warmth in the quieter passages; the orchestra possibly needed to be a little lighter for such a refined and elegant piece. Lill’s interpretation of the cadenza, which as he noted in his interview, must have been written much later due to its deeper and more searching nature, was delivered with great passion. The second movement, conversely, was a slightly perfunctory performance and surprisingly lacking in the warmth displayed earlier, although the section where the music dissolves into an almost dream-like timelessness, was beautifully judged. The final movement was dashed off with great aplomb, much fun being had by all.

Dvořák’s Symphony no. 6 in D major owes much to Brahms, especially the final movement (with its characteristic principal theme). Completed in 1880, performed in 1881 in Prague, it is heavily orchestrated throughout and, along with Brahms’ symphonies and Schubert’s C major symphony, was regarded as “one of the most important symphonies since Beethoven” (Donald Tovey). It was the highlight of this evening’s concert, delivered with great energy and enthusiasm. A brisk, forward-moving pace was set for the first movement Allegro non tanto; even in the quieter passages, the impetus never flagged, which provided a good sense of cohesion. The main theme was delivered with a great sense of grandeur and the dynamics were well-controlled. The Adagio, in three-part form, has lyrical outer layers with a turbulent, central section; Cristian Măcelaru counter-balanced these perfectly, eliciting a relaxed warmth on the one hand, with impassioned drama on the other.

The scherzo is a good example of a Czech national dance, the furiant, with its characteristic 3/4 time, showcasing Dvořák’s favoured cross-rhythms. This was enthusiastically performed with an accomplished handling of the complex rhythms and dynamics.

The final “Brahmsian”-style movement, which earned much praise from the man himself, was a terrific performance, full of taut energy and vigour, with a wonderful climax, affirming that the BSO had well and truly settled into the exciting season ahead.