With a packed hall and three immense works, expectations were high for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Though founded in 1906, it has taken them over 100 years to make the journey for their first appearance at the BBC Proms. But under the baton of Proms veteran, Sir Andrew Davis, tonight’s concert was surely in safe hands.

Sir Andrew Davis conducts Melbourne Symphony © Chris Christodoulou
Sir Andrew Davis conducts Melbourne Symphony
© Chris Christodoulou
Yet with three staples of the concert repertoire, the MSO had little to hide behind: there would be no excuses from dodgy premières of new works or rarely performed pieces by unknown composers. With Strauss’ Don Juan, Davis’ response was to take the work at a daring speed. This had mixed results. The high speed ensured that the main heroic melody remained exciting, and Davis’ build-ups to climaxes were dizzying. But the tranquil sections felt rushed, which prevented their lyrical qualities from singing. And despite its speed, the performance was plagued by lack of energy from the MSO. The main heroic theme was never quite as exuberant or as triumphant as Strauss demands, so that although Davis meticulously controlled the shocking silence at the work’s close, it lost its effect. The striking contrast between this sudden tragic death and the bold heroism of the main tune was never delivered.

Truls Mørk © Chris Christodoulou
Truls Mørk
© Chris Christodoulou
The first half continued with an inability to capture contrasting shades of expression. Composed during the aftermath of World War One, Elgar’s Cello Concerto is melancholy, nostalgic and yearns for something lost. But regarding it as only a reflection on the war’s tragedy leads to a one-dimensional understanding of the concerto. It is sad, but there are also moments of light, hope, and even humour.

Unfortunately, this performance displayed only the work’s mournful side. The fast repeated notes on the cello in the second movement, for example, should reveal a playful character. Although Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk did well to stay on top of this admittedly tricky passage, I was left desiring greater buoyancy: his playing was still caught up in the heavy mourning of the first movement.

Nevertheless, Mørk was successful in capturing the work’s sense of loss. With the smooth tranquillity of the third movement he created a beautiful impression of reaching for something beyond, something lost that could never be found again. But Mørk never strained for it, rather he hopelessly pleaded. This kind of expression was only made possible by an orchestra in full support of their soloist. The MSO never overwhelmed the cello, and even during Mørk’s quiet moments the entire string section was somehow softer still, gently cushioning the cello’s sound. With a chamber-like interaction between Mørk, Davis and the MSO, the orchestra became a natural extension of the cello. Orchestra and cellist became a single, solo entity, with all the intimacy that a solo chamber work rewards.

There were moments of beauty in the first half, but an overall range of expression was missing. The huge space of the Royal Albert Hall requires dramatic contrasts, but Davis and MSO had difficulty in mediating between the different expressive demands. This was going to be a problem for Berlioz’s highly dramatic Symphonie Fantastique in the second half. The work depicts the constantly changing emotional states of the artist protagonist of its programme, and his obsession with the woman he loves, represented by the recurring melody through all five movements: the idée fixe. Given the drabness of the first half, it seemed unlikely that the MSO were going to be up to the task.

Yet the Symphonie Fantastique was exactly what this concert needed. Perhaps in Elgar the orchestra had been too subservient to its soloist. Now free, they relished taking back the reins. Davis’ build up of anticipation was expertly handled in the first movement. The slow introduction was carefully held back whilst capturing a darker side: a premonition of the tragedy that was yet to come. But with the start of the first movement’s fast section and the first appearance of the idée fixe Davis instantly switched to a new joyful mood. The whole movement was marked by this interchange joyfulness of shadowy foreboding, never giving the audience the certainty of knowing whether it would end in triumph or tragedy.

At the close of the third movement the quietly threatening timpani that answered the cor anglais’ call made it clear that this work could not end in triumph. The chilling atmosphere evoked by the MSO’s percussionists continued straight into the fourth movement. Joined by the bold and unashamedly brash military march enjoyed by the brass, Davis trapped the audience: there would be no escape from this inevitable march towards fate. The percussion continued to take centre-stage in the final movement as the reverberating bass drum rumbled menacingly through the Albert Hall. The final close, though raucously climatic, was not triumphant. It was rough, brilliant and tragic – just as it should be.