There are, in crude terms at least, three approaches to Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. There is what might be dubbed the international style as typified by Yo-Yo Ma, and then there’s the ‘heart on sleeve’ approach of Jacqueline du Pré. There have, of course, been many champions for the third, more introverted style, but on hearing the performance of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, that way of interpreting it would seem to be epitomised by Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk.
There were no wringing hands or histrionic gestures here. Rather, Mørk, who has performed the piece twice before at the Proms, expressed all of the intensity that bubbles beneath the surface. He did this precisely by adopting a cool, measured approach that brought out every nuance and detail in the score. As a result, it became impossible not to be moved by the gravitas he gave the opening of the first Adagio, or by the sense of intrigue that he handed the three chords of the Lento that are ‘borrowed’ from the first movement. Mørk was aided in his interpretation by an orchestra that worked seamlessly with his intentions, and the manner in which the strings complemented his own sound was deeply impressive. There were many moments of mesmerising beauty amidst the tenderness and lyricism of the third movement, while the exuberant and stoical elements of the final movement were contrasted to great effect.
The orchestra’s performance during the Elgar reflected its strengths more generally on its first ever appearance at the BBC Proms. There was precision and control in its approach, and yet this seldom stifled its ability to convey excitement. Indeed, in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique it was the orchestra’s sure command of the technical aspects of the work that enabled it to present the piece in so engaging a manner. When the strings were at their most sensitive, they imbued their delicacy with some shimmering hues, and their ability to lean in and out of phrases, particularly in the first and third movements, was masterly.
The orchestra’s underlying strengths, in turn, enabled it to provide a thorough exploration of the idée fixe, giving full attention to the reasons for its various guises, while also furnishing the symphony with an overarching sense of unity through its recurrences. In this respect, the final Dream of a Sabbath Night capped an excellent performance with its driven yet insightful exploration of the grotesque.
Richard Strauss’s Don Juan (1888-89) is a firm favourite at the Albert Hall, and opened my first ever Prom exactly fourteen years ago on 19 August 2000. On this occasion, the orchestra really conveyed the sense of Don Juan’s multi-faceted journey full of highs and lows, conquests and haunting memories. There was passion and drive in abundance, and here too it became obvious just how much fundamental control was needed to convey such a strong sense of heady pandemonium.