A brief note on the theatre's official site informed the spectators that the cellist Alban Gerhardt would not be present for the concert of September 21st.

Thus, an improvised program featured two cornerstones of the greatest and most popular symphonic repertoire – two “Fourth Symphonies” not dissimilar in the radiance of nature but fundamentally different in representing diverse moments in the evolution of the symphony from a formal and poetic point of view: Symphony no. 4 in B flat major, Op.60 by Ludwig Van Beethoven and Symphony no. 4 in A major, Op.90 “Italian” by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

Juraj Valčuha © Teatro di San Carlo
Juraj Valčuha
© Teatro di San Carlo
Both works present contrasting portraits of the composers that we are generally accustomed to viewing. Our image of Beethoven is influenced by the disruptive and revolutionary Third symphony (a real gigantic “Concert for Orchestra” which marks one of the most powerful and sudden stylistic turning points in the history of instrumental music) and the unsurpassed drama of the Fifth (Leonard Bernstein called it “a kid with a Mediterranean character between two Nordic giants”). In the case of Mendelssohn, he was the great poet of the early romanticism, very good at creating “descriptive music” made of atmospheres and frescoes, rather than sound effects and programmatic references. In  this famous symphony however, called “Italian”, the intent is to translate into music the feelings and emotions of his travels in Italy in the years 1829-31, rather than refer to the ideal character of Romanticism of “program music”.

The 38-year-old Slovak Juraj Valčuha, chief conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI in Turin, is enjoying a celebrated international career, having worked in past with the Berlin Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Filarmonica della Scala in Milan, the New York Philharmonic, and many other prominent ensembles. This is his second time in Naples in less than a year: last November he was at San Carlo to lead a concert with pianist Roberto Cominati.

The program opened with a meticulous rendition of Beethoven’s Fourth. Valčuha’s movements were sharp and precise, and he and orchestra were both attuned to the music’s rhythmic core. The Fourth in many aspects shows Beethoven’s growing strength as a composer, particularly the B-flat minor Adagio introduction to the first movement, which Leonard Bernstein, again, described as a “mysterious introduction which hovers around minor modes, tip-toeing its tenuous weight through ambiguous unrelated keys to settle down into its final B-flat major”. The conductor began with a light beginning in the Adagio introduction, rendering its dialogues in a carefully measured way and providing contrasting expressions to the audience.

Not everybody takes to this symphony as much as they do to the composer's more popular pieces. Sandwiched between the Third and Fifth symphonies, the Fourth can seem somewhat frivolous, often seemingly overshadowed as a result. Nevertheless, Valčuha made it seem more substantial than it usually appears: the swift third movement Scherzo was enjoyable, and Valčuha finished things up with precision and warmth. Played with precision, rhythmic clarity, beautiful balances between the sections, and excellent interpretation of each phrase, it was Beethoven at his most enjoyable. The sunny side of the symphony shone through, indeed in a manner recalling the symphonies of Joseph Haydn. 

Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 4 sounded no less thought out and convincing. From the resounding vibrations of the low brass that opened the work, the orchestra demonstrated responsiveness and attention to style. The symphony commonly known as “The Italian” has its origins, like the “Scottish” Symphony and The Hebrides overture, in the travels Mendelssohn made, in this case to Italy whose colours and atmosphere was its inspiration. It was finished in 1833, and Mendellsohn conducted the first performance himself in London on 13 May of the same year at a London Philharmonic Society concert. The symphony's success, and Mendelssohn's popularity, were to prove highly influential for British music in the 19th century.

The first movement is a joyful sonata form, and is followed by an Andante con moto, inspired by a religious procession the composer witnessed in Naples. The third movement is a minuet in which french horns are introduced in the trio, while the final movement includes dance figurations from the Roman saltarello and the Neapolitan tarantella. To an Italian ear, however, the Fourth Symphony does not sound particularly Italian. Despite the use of folk songs or local musical traditions he had discovered while travelling in Italy, the work seems more an expression of how Italy made him feel. Indeed, it is not until the final movement that we first hear a genuinely Italian music motif, in this case the sound of a national peasant dance. Valčuha demanded an intense precision from the strings, yet the response from the brass failed to match their counterparts. Overall, however, the conductor obtained a strong performance from the orchestra and offered a honest rendition of the program.