When Richard Strauss described Elgar as “the first English progressive musician”, he was responding to the choral work The Dream of Gerontius. But Elgar’s Second Symphony adds credence to the accolade, particularly in a performance as intelligent and keenly felt as this BBC Proms one. Under Vasily Petrenko, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra underlined what it is that makes both Elgar and Strauss such inventive, and, yes, progressive composers.
Had the concert not kicked off with Strauss’s Festival Prelude, that message might have rung out even more clearly. Premiered in 1913 at the opening of Vienna’s Konzerthaus, this bombastic piece is rarely heard nowadays – and it’s not a great loss. Nevertheless, it allowed the orchestra’s outstanding trumpeters – in this case, 10 of them – to profile themselves. Petrenko’s interpretation steered clear of brashness.
Yet he seemed more involved in the Deutsche Motette, Op 62, another Strauss rarity, which followed. Characterised by knotted melodic lines, kaleidoscopic colours and harmonies as slippery as quicksand, this piece relies on nimble voices for its effect. And that is just what the BBC Singers delivered, along with soloists Suzanne Shakespeare, Tara Erraught, Adrian Dwyer and Brindley Sherratt. Still, it was the orchestra’s burnished, glowing reading of Strauss’s Four Last Songs that gave the first half of the concert its raison d’être. Soprano Inger Dam-Jensen scored high on delicacy, if not audibility, while concertmaster James Clark contributed ravishing violin solos in the penultimate song “Beim Schlafengehen”.
It provided a taster of the depth that was to characterise the second half. Petrenko is a seasoned Elgar conductor, and his interpretation of the Second Symphony is well-honed: the musical structure was unmistakable, the often-innovative textures precisely defined. A more flexible reading would be hard to come by. From the sombre second movement to the fury of the third, Petrenko and his orchestra had the measure of this work’s wild mood swings. And while they stretched the tempi, they never obscured the music’s natural heartbeat, forced the emotion or allowed it to descend into self pity. Alongside a great sense of tenderness and sadness, what this Elgar had, perhaps above all, was dignity. It was an impression that continued to strengthen until the final, heartbreakingly fragile chord had flickered out.