The trudge towards the CBSO's centenary in 2020 is bringing many rewards along the way, not least the fabulous exploration of 1913 to which we were treated last Wednesday.
Andrew Litton proved yet again that it’s not only British conductors who hold the secret to Elgar. His reading of Falstaff, a masterpiece valedictory in tone, was sensitive to mood, allowing so much character to come from the players themselves (Laurence Jackson’s dreamy violin, Eduardo Vassallo’s avuncular cello, Gretha Tuls’ sorrowing bassoon, Cliff Pick’s so-sensitive timpanism – and such beefy, generous sounds from all the rest) as he unfolded this sad old man’s story with such clarity of texture and richness of colour. There were surtitles recounting the episodes; they were almost redundant, given the communicative grip of Litton’s reading.
Also written at the death-throes of self-bloating romanticisim, but expressing itself in a totally different, twilight-denying way is Respighi’s symphonic poem The Pines of Rome, the CBSO winds fizzing in its boisterous opening before more portentous matters take over, with a march-past of Roman legionary forces.
Offstage and organ-loft brass were to the fore, but we also relished more introspective moments, such as the interlude in the gardens of the Janiculum, with a lovely cello solo and nightingale tones relayed from the original Victrola recording used in Respighi’s premiere; reminders of Elgar’s favourite cellist, Beatrice Harrison, playing well past bedtime in a Surrey garden, inspiring a nightingale to sing along for a BBC broadcast.
This speciousness was Respighi at his worst (he has far more rewarding works to offer, not least his explorations into musical history), but interposed between these two symphonic poems was probably the most technically difficult piano concerto ever written, Prokofiev’s Second.
Freddy Kempf was soloist, he and Litton having already forged a huge bond in performances of the work. Piano tone was well-weighted, articulation was pearly and clear as Kempf explored all the undercurrents of this mysterious music.
A huge cadenza creeps up virtually unannounced, but Kempf had the measure of it, clearly defining its multifarious lines. This was a performance as moving as it was impressive.