‘Fantastic Dance’ with the BSO, conducted by Joshua Weilerstein, with pianist Alessandro Taverna – The Lighthouse, Poole – 4 Feb 2015

The BSO’s playing flowed like liquid gold under the skilful direction of the outstanding conducting talent of Joshua Weilerstein – a truly relaxed, podium presence.

Weilerstein said of his three concerts with the BSO:

‘I’m so excited to be performing with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, with this very exciting program – it’s a rich orchestral showcase, from the warm, passionate string sound that is so typically Sibelius, to the virtuosic, brilliant, and profoundly dark Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances which show Rachmaninov in a very different light than he is normally portrayed.’

From the outset of this evening’s concert, which opened with Sibelius’ symphonic poem ‘Spring Time’, composed in 1894, it was very apparent that Weilerstein is one of those conductors who likes to allow the orchestras in his charge to breathe, guiding rather than directing them, ensuring a wonderful sense of flow and freedom of expression to their playing. This allowed the BSO the space in which to enjoy the sweeping melodies in this piece.

‘Spring Time’ is a lush and romanticised view of the season – Karl Flodin, a critic of the time, praised its ‘Charming and fresh Nordic tone’. The tempi and dynamic changes were handled adroitly whilst retaining great cohesion to a work which could otherwise lack unity. The BSO played with warmth, grace and nostalgia throughout this opener, and Weilerstein elicited a great climax from them. The inclusion of tubular bells in the score provides a great sense of jubilation, which was enjoyed to the full with an unhurried and spacious end to the work.

Grieg’s piano concerto, composed in 1868-1869, is his most successful large-scale work. The Venetian pianist, Alessandro Taverna, said: ‘I’m really happy to perform with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for a second time and I’m especially delighted to be conducted by a musician of the calibre of Joshua Weilerstein.’

A crisp and dramatic drum roll, followed by a bold, declamatory opening on the piano, led us into a an exciting movement, brilliantly played by all. The lyricism of the second subject was given due space with a light but romantic reading and a lovely, natural sense of rubato by Taverna; the cadenza was superb, with assured and authoritative playing, as Taverna’s hands danced across the keys, holding everyone rapt. A vigorous re-statement of the opening ended our breath-taking taste of fresh, Norwegian music-making.

The exquisitely enchanting adagio was played with a natural fluidity that captured perfectly the mood of the music. Taverna’s playing was unhurried, sensitive and as smooth as silk and matched perfectly by the BSO’s responsive accompaniment. The only slight niggle was the accompanying solo horn passages which, at times, were a little too strident.

The Finale with its fast, Norwegian dance overtones, was dispatched with great panache and virtuosity from Taverna and dynamism from the BSO. The contrasting pastoral section was given a thoughtful and considered treatment with lovely nuances of expression. A return to the vigour of the opening built to a dramatic and thrilling end with some truly breath-taking playing.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, composed in 1940, were his final major composition and are truly symphonic in scale. The first movement is in three sections. The outer sections were energetically played and crisply attacked with engaging rhythmic insistence and drive. In the central reflective section, Rachmaninov introduces the smoky timbre of the alto saxophone with a long and expressive, wistful melody – this was beautifully played with light and sensitive accompaniment from the BSO’s woodwind. This theme is then picked up by the strings and was stated in a ravishing display of fine string playing by the BSO. As well as the unusual introduction of the sax to the symphony orchestra, Rachmaninov’s use of the piano added an additional dimension of colour to the piece, rippling gently behind the strings. A return to the vigour of the opening section was smoothly handled as was the dissolution to the peaceful and romantic ending, including a reference to Rachmaninov’s much-maligned 1st symphony.

The BSO were at their most hypnotic in the central valse triste. From the very opening, with its stopped horns and muted trumpets, to the principal waltz played by the strings, we were drawn into a world where all is clearly not well. The fantastical, twilight world depicted in this central movement with its numerous twists and turns was skilfully executed, successfully creating a feel of unease throughout.

In the final movement, Rachmaninov finds inspiration in the music of the Russian Orthodox Church and the ‘Dies Irae’. The darkness and gloom of the movement is finally overcome by an exhilarating dance which brings triumph to the conclusion. The BSO were, as ever, totally responsive to the ever-changing demands of this piece and delivered a captivating performance with an exhilarating end to what, in its entirety, was a finely played and memorable concert.

**** A truly enthralling performance from the very first note – one of the best concerts of the season, so far.