Live review – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra: John Wilson’s Roman Festivals

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / John Wilson (above)

City Halls, London
Thursday 29 November 2018

Donizetti Overture: Don Pasquale (1843)
Puccini Capriccio sinfonico (1883)
Respighi Feste romane (Roman Festivals) (1928); Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) (1915-16); Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) (1923-4)

Written by Ben Hogwood

If ever an antidote was needed for a blustery November evening, this was it. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and their Associate Guest Conductor John Wilson began with a sprightly overture – that written by Donizetti for his opera Don Pasquale, complete with romantic solo from cellist Rudi de Groote.

We then heard Puccini’s impressive student piece Capriccio sinfonico, where the orchestra dug in to its substantial outlines and memorable triple-time dance theme.

These two pieces served as effective preludes to the main action in this all-Italian concert – Respighi’s triptych of symphonic poems inspired by the centre of his life, Rome. All too often Respighi is held up as a brilliant orchestrator lacking in musical craft, but these performances under John Wilson utterly refuted those claims. This is music of wonderful colour and texture, certainly, but there are great melodies too, scored in such a way that future composers – among them surely John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith – would surely have fallen under the Italian’s spell.

Respighi himself knew how to use his influences for good. Stravinsky looms large, as do Debussy and Ravel – but nobody else could have written the gladiatorial opening to Roman Festivals, its fire and brimstone blowing the cobwebs away from all corners of City Halls.

The BBC Scottish brass were brilliant here, with Simon Johnson’s blowsy trombone solo in Epiphany and the off-stage trumpets in Circuses both highlights. Jubilee, the second movement of the four, painted vividly the downtrodden pilgrims on the highway, rising up as they glimpsed the Holy City in a shower of glistening colour.

The duet between lead violin and cello in The October Festival (Laura Samuel and de Groote again) was a beauty, while the finale built on its influences from Stravinsky’s Petrushka with music of athleticism and raw power, where pianists Lynda Cochrane and Julia Lynch also deserve a mention, their virtuosity underpinning the sound.

Fountains Of Rome was next, sensibly placed to provide a more restrained complement to the bombastic first poem. Here the wonder lay in four beautiful depictions of water, first heard undulating through The Fountain of Valle Giulia at dawn. The Triton Fountain at mid-morning was a thrilling scherzo in this performance, while the organ (Michael Bawtree) added extra colour and splendour to The Trevi Fountain at midday. Finally the magical, twinkling image of The Fountain of the Villa Medici showed off the slightly smaller orchestra in all its glory, the strings on top form with the notably tricky figures.

Pines of Rome is the most celebrated of the triptych, and though well known its emotional impact here was considerable. The busy, blustery Pines of the Villa Borghese set a colourful scene, but Wilson paced the Pines near a catacomb to perfection, shaping the apex of the Gregorian chant to spine-tingling effect, helped once again by the brilliant BBC Scottish brass section.

Clarinetist Yann Ghiro provided a solo of exceptional control during The Pines of the Janiculum Hill, where we heard the nightingale from afar – an innovative and controversial role for the gramophone in 1924, and even now making unsuspecting audience members sit up in surprise. Yet the whole evening was still to reach its apex, The Pines of the Via Appia, with what was quite simply the loudest orchestral playing I have ever heard. This was Respighi turned up to eleven, and when it shouldn’t have been possible for the music to get any louder or bigger it just kept going.

John Wilson ensured this was always a controlled ascent and never vulgar, so as the hairs stood up on the neck once again his orchestra reached a tumultuous finish, capping a wonderful evening of music. Now that’s what I call a concert!

Further listening

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3. John Wilson has not recorded any of the music in this concert, but you can hear a playlist of ‘Roman Festivals’:

BBC Proms 2017 – John Wilson conducts Holst’s The Planets & Vaughan Williams’ 9th Symphony

CBSO Youth Chorus (female voices), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, John Wilson (above)

Vaughan Williams Symphony No.9 in E minor (1957)

Holst The Planets, Op.32 (1917)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 25 July 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

Firmly established at the Proms during this past decade through his high-profile musical and film programmes, John Wilson has enjoyed relatively little exposure in terms of the classical repertoire for which he evidently feels great affinity. His recent appointment as the Associate Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra should hopefully rectify this, and this early-evening concert cannily juxtaposed what has long been regarded as Vaughan Williams’s most recalcitrant (and underrated) symphony with what will always be Holst’s most popular work.

As dense in texture as it is ambiguous in content, Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony has enjoyed limited advocacy (it went un-played at these concerts for almost three decades after 1960), though it has latterly enjoyed something of a return to favour and one anticipated that Wilson would have its measure. What resulted was something of a curate’s egg in terms of interpretation, not least in an opening movement whose Moderato maestoso marking was scarcely evident – Wilson favouring a fluid approach as emphasized this music’s ominous import while leaving the (often shaky) orchestral ensemble to fend for itself. Better in this respect was the second movement, its sombre and Hardy-inspired imagery made tangible through haunting flugelhorn solos and the baleful music that intervenes at crucial moments.

Neither was the militaristic scherzo wanting in impetus, though here Wilson’s preference for deftly sprung rhythms and relatively transparent textures served to rob this music of its sheer malevolence. Much the hardest movement to bring off, the lengthy finale emerged surely and methodically – its polyphonic weave rendered with a clarity that not even the expanse of the Albert Hall acoustic could deny – to an apotheosis more telling for its tangible equivocation. Whether those blazing E major chords convey affirmation or resignation is open to question.

The Planets has, of course, never looked back over the near-century since it first astounded a public confronted with the terrors of mechanized war. Perhaps one should not be surprised that Wilson was at pains to play down its cinematic quality (hardly something of which Holst could have been aware in any case) – his vehement take on Mars proceeding an eloquent if slightly cloying Venus; itself followed by an almost dance-like Mercury and an incisive Jupiter at its best in a trio section that managed to eschew almost all trace of false solemnity

By contrast, Saturn succeeded better in its listless opening and radiant closing sections than in the anguished music at its centre; Wilson’s preference for measured tempi continuing into an unusually steady Uranus marked by deadpan humour and the spectacularly OTT organ glissando at its climax. The enigmatic Neptune was almost as successful, its disembodied textures securely rendered by the BBCSSO, though a lack of integration with the wordless voices in its latter stages meant that the close felt less ‘other-worldly’ than it needed to be.

Overall, a promising showing for what ought to develop into a productive and worthwhile association. Wilson palpably has much to contribute in this repertoire, and what technical flaws there were only intermittently undercut the qualities of these probing performances.

Richard Whitehouse (photos (c) Chris Christodoulou