The Enigma Variations is a favourite with the Proms audience – unsurprisingly, the Albert Hall was sold out on Sunday evening.
The programme paired Elgar’s work with another set of orchestral variations, namely Brahms’ Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, which provided a superficial but fascinating point of comparison.As a whole, Prom 31 proved a highly enjoyable but not completely perfect event.
Richard Strauss’ Oboe Concerto was the memorable performance of the evening. The work is graceful and lively and more than a little suggestive of the Classical style, most notably in the jumpy Rondo finale. Alexei Ogrintchouk was a fascinating soloist.
In the opening Allegro moderato, I wondered whether his apparently flawless technique was not a little cool, but in the lyrical Andante he conjured a melting, seamless legato and an absorbing warmth of tone. The joyful stabbed staccato melodies and tumbling slides of the finale were admirably intonated, though not perfectly – a sense of tension added much to the third movement’s exposed solo writing. Thanks to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and beloved conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, the soloist was never overpowered. Ogrintchouk conveyed as much through his facial expressions as through his instrument – surprisingly, it felt completely appropriate and sincere.
The other Strauss of the evening, the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, sounded rather hesitant at times, though it was ultimately stirring. But the two sets of variations in the first half were excellent. In the Brahms, the Chorale itself was noble and even poignant, as were the final bars of the piece. The sense of progression through the set was great, thanks to fluid moves between movements. I was especially gripped by the discombobulating leap from pastoral (and here, tensely sexual) Seven to the brisk, skating woodwind of Eight.
And the Elgar was similar: very strong in the move from A to B and in musical and dramatic contrast. The Theme, here, was spare and frail, seemingly ready to topple from grace at any moment; the superlatively violent timpani, brisk strings and fearsome horns of Seven provided a palpable focal point; the clarinets in Eight‘s outer sections were fantastic, though the interplay of instruments in between could have been even more pronounced; Thirteen‘s horn and timpani heartbeat completely convinced. Nimrod was spoiled by a woman with a hacking cough, but its climaxes nevertheless took no prisoners. It was a good performance though, as throughout the evening, neither conductor nor orchestra seemed at their total best.