There are conductors who are statues and there are others who are dancers. The statues move as a sort of concession to human weakness. The dancers move because they cannot help it. The Italian Gianandrea Noseda, one of the array of conductors to whom we are being treated as the search for a new musical director for the National Symphony Orchestra continues, is, characteristically, one of the latter breed. He sashayed; he pranced; he leapt; he almost knelt down. He got under the sound; he presided over the sound; he rallied the not inconsiderable forces from the sidelines. Sparing himself not a jot, he singled out sections with finessed precision, a particularly noticeable rapport developing with the Concermaster, Nurit Bar Josef, who, by the bye, did a fine job throughout the evening. In short, Noseda wouldn’t rest till he got what he wanted out of them, every one of them. By the second half of tonight’s performance, they properly caught fire. Il sait séduire, cet homme.

Gianandrea Noseda © Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio di Torino
Gianandrea Noseda
© Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio di Torino

The second half was definitely the target to hit: that splendid orchestral showcase, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 in E minor, overflowing with ardour and sensibility, and necessitating an intense dynamic between conductor and orchestra. In the vast first movement, Noseda worked on building fullness and textures and such was amply achieved. On the self-indulgently lush spectrum, Hildegard von Bingen must stand at zero, and Rachmaninov at ten: we were duly allowed to wallow in epic melodies and sonorous bass lines. Yet when crispness and black humour were demanded, as in parts of the Scherzo, they were unflinching. The celebrated clarinet solo in the Adagio left me unmoved, however: the balance with the strings seemed slightly off, and the clarinet, whilst plain and true, lacked emotional depth. The boundlessly exuberant finale in E major had terrific momentum: ‘victory symphony’ style evoked with panache. The orchestra had been worked into what he wanted them to be, a living, breathing entity. One could feel that at an instinctive level, and it was satisfying.

Given the commemorative context, it would be odd not to reference World War 1 at some stage in the season. The offering was an apposite one, and one surely new to many of the audience. Alfredo Casella’s Elegia Eroica is a bijou piece, being performed for the first time here at the NSO. Composed in 1916, its dating reveals both the truth and irony of the title. Dedicated to the memory of a soldier killed in war, there are no blithe heroic tales of derring-do depicted here in musical form, but an elegy to heroism itself, definitively crushed in the mire and mud of the trenches. Wilfred Owens not Rupert Brooke. Six horns announce Armageddon; panicked strings take up its expression. Noseda carefully stirred up the frothing sounds of dissonance and despair. This is pock-marked, barbed music, with much texture in a highly compressed space. A flute solo proved haunting; as did the poignant irony of a berceuse where flute and xylophone served as all-too-brief respite to the scenes of barbarism. In musical terms, a most evocative representation of what Owen would have called that “old lie”: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori.

The Canadian violinist, James Ehnes, made a fairly bland NSO debut with Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 2. in G minor. The last major work that Prokofiev composed in the West before his return home to Russia, it was part of his search for a new kind of simplicity, announced in a musical manifesto in 1934. Ehnes began unremarkably ‘in media res’: the opening solo, exposed and entirely unorchestrated, set a lacklustre tone for the whole, which I was hoping would dissipate, but didn’t. The Allegro moderato presented many missed opportunities – indecisive rhythmic accents, blunt attack sections, scale passages which lost the will to live. Then there were volume issues. It seemed as if he was playing in the room next door: we didn’t get ‘immediate’ sound. Sweet his sound certainly was, but this is, after all, Prokofiev and this is 1936: ‘mere’ sweetness will not cut it. There’s an angular brusqueness alternating with lyrical abandon that’s the real glory of this movement, perhaps of the work at large.

The Andante assai suited his more genteel style this evening; he was best of all stratospherically high up on the E string. But there still was not enough soaring above the orchestra. Noseda certainly sought to incarnate the spirit of the work; for the Allegro ben marcato, he became part martinet, part lyricist. Still, the whole did not come to life in the way that it ought to have. One couldn’t avoid the impression that Ehnes was playing ‘good boy’ Prokofiev, and that he needed to explore a very different sort of register. 

***11