Two popular Russian works from the late 19th century and a very welcome Czech rarity gave this Lighthouse concert a gratifying sense of discovery. This was all the more satisfying for hearing Martinů’s Symphony no. 4, a work known to me only through Neeme Järvi’s recording. The difference was revelatory and, for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, an artistic triumph.

Aleksandar Marković © Vladimir Miloradović
Aleksandar Marković
© Vladimir Miloradović
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture was given a no-nonsense account directed by guest conductor Aleksandar Marković who drove the work forward with a sweeping benevolence. This avoided any cloying sentimentality, yet created ample space for crucial passages such as the celebrated love theme first heard by cor anglais and muted violas. If the tempo of the chorale-like opening didn’t quite convey a tragic mood, then the work’s symphonic drama (evoking tensions between the Montagues and Capulets) was vividly caught. Strings had marvellous unanimity and, in the final pages, brass and woodwind were thrillingly responsive to Marković’s baton.

There followed Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor where the orchestra provided alert and sensitive support to Ukrainian pianist Alexander Romanovsky. After a declamatory opening, with echoes of Grieg, Romanovsky laid bare an astonishing technique allied to interpretative insight. He sailed effortlessly through the first movement’s formidable demands and brought to it elemental power, precision and poetic expression, notably in a melting dialogue for piano and cellos. Thundering octave scales were dashed down with total assurance, his flair never obscured by flamboyance.

For the Andante, Romanovsky forged phrases of limpid beauty and judged to perfection the calibration of each note, partnered by orchestral playing of sustained eloquence. By contrast the finale has a glittering solo part and performed here with transparent ease. Now the piano’s upper register shone and iron-clad bass notes were added to Romanovsky’s tonal palette; the whole propelled by an energising Marković with tremendous gusto, soloist and players evidently enjoying themselves.

As one of the most prolific Czech composers of the last century, Bohuslav Martinů has an intermittent presence in the concert hall. His musical personality, derived in part from his compatriots (Smetana, Dvořák and Suk), is strikingly original, yet his six symphonies are neglected works despite the regard in which his Fourth is held.

It was written during the months before the Allied Victory in Europe, completed in June 1945. The work’s overwhelming optimism was brilliantly captured in this performance, embodying the spirit of dance, not just in the obsessive rhythms of the Scherzo (incorporating a wonderful solo string trio episode), but in the whirlwind finale where a glorious hymn-like theme emerges from dense layers of counterpoint. The first movement too was compelling, its rush of ideas by turns riotous and wistful, and its quirky harmonic juxtapositions were reminiscent of Charles Ives. It was Sibelius that came to the mind in the haunting immensity of the Largo where the Bournemouth players bathed in its lush string sonorities.

If the Rachmaninov concerto had been gripping, the Martinů symphony was a sensation, and drew from the BSO a world-class performance, lovingly prepared and bursting with energy. So, when will we hear more from this composer? I, for one, would have happily sat through the entire symphony again.