BBC Proms 2016 / 9: Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony

It’s hot. Very hot. Not so hot that I have to move from one place to another walking like an elderly man who’s lost his walking aid, but just hot enough to know that simple tasks like watering the plants or cutting the grass will cause me to break out in a heavy, unappealing sweat. And I’ve only just had a shower, which is why I’ve got my husband to do the garden chores instead.

The weather is perfect for listening back to last night’s Prom. In particular Mendelssohn’s blistering ‘Italian’ Symphony played by period instrument band Le Cercle de l’Harmonie. Conductor Jérémie Rhorer, like the orchestra he directed, made the work his own, commanding the orchestra at a lightning pace. Make a point of listening to the crisp woodwind articulation in the first and fourth movements of the symphony – something to behold.

The sparse string sound (sometimes recordings from the 1980s, for example, can over-sentimentalise the opening melodic subject) combined with the rawness of the lower wind also conveyed a different kind of Italy from the cliché perhaps we all have in our heads when we think of the country. Not so much coastlines searing in the heat, more, lush alpine hillsides, exuberant greens and blues pulsating in the sunshine. This was a far more pastoral opening movement than I’ve ever heard before – the alpine calls made more distinctive by the period sounding bassoons and horns.

I adore this symphony which is why perhaps I listen to it more intently than I would others. For me, the second movement lacked the mysteriousness I’ve come to expect as a result of listening to a lot of recordings of the work. I wanted the dry wandering bass line in the celli and bass to be more of a smooth line over which the flutes could lay their haunting melody. But the staccato bass line at the beginning of the movement made more sense with the glorious legato in the counter-subject which followed. And it might even have been the case that come the end, the optimum articulation had been found.

The third movement shimmered like something far away on the horizon shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Low strings with high melodic lines in the woodwind gave proceedings a delicious clarity. And with that a sense of joy, similar to that I experience when I see on a summer’s evening south London from my bathroom window, Crystal Palace tower on the horizon piercing the sky.

The real fireworks were undoubtedly left until the last movement. This was the fastest I’ve ever heard this movement played. So fast at times that I was almost certain that, on occasions, things were pulled back a little just for the sake of safety. The articulation in the wind was a stunning technical demonstration which transformed proceedings into a breath-taking treat. Exuberance abounded, so too a commitment to subvert expectations with sudden moments of dynamic sophistication.

It could have been all too easy to wow everyone with a performance which went at break-neck speed. But Le Cercle de l’Harmonie managed something far more nuanced. The period sound and textures gave the quieter sections of this movement a human quality – as though we were all of us by Mendelssohn’s side experiencing his Grand Tour with him. That gave the work a sense of immediacy I’ve not heard before.

Le Cercle de l’Harmonie and Jérémie Rhorer are exciting musicians who are committed to playing with great energy, enthusiasm, and precision. That is something to cherish and not take for granted.



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