As our programmes acknowledged, ‘In the South’ would not be mainstream Elgar for some in the audience. However, it is a really strong piece – and a great one to do when you’ve got the heavy mob brass in for Mahler’s ‘Titan’. The SSO had clearly got well into this substantial tone-poem and we could hear the detail of the fairly explicit extra-musical programme that Elgar had used as a framework. It had the noble tune as well as the aggressive and surprisingly raw dissonances of the centurions’ march, it had the gorgeous 6/4 faux-folksong and the energy that this interesting score requires. There were just a couple of passages where ensemble perhaps owed more to Malvern mist than to hard bright Italian clarity, but the impact of the performance was highly persuasive for many who had not come across the piece before.
The concerto slot was provided by Mozart – perhaps a little unusual for the SSO – [though there have been a few more classical scores of late] – his K. 447 for the French horn. Young soloist Ben Goldscheider was technically secure and gave a very accomplished account of Mozart’s quite light-weight score. The SSO were, I thought, impressively stylistic in support, always hard with a relatively large string section in this sort of C18th music, they didn’t require heavy-handed direction from Darrell Davison, and supported their young protégé encouragingly. The stories about Mozart’s teasing banter with cheesemonger dedicatee of these pieces are well known – maybe Ben could have worked towards more wit, risk-taking and joie de vivre in his interpretation, but that will come with experience ………… this was assured playing.
Mahler’s 1st symphony is a one-off, and I think it comes across as a young man’s music in the most exciting performances. Sunday afternoon is perhaps not the ideal time for summoning that energy, but the SSO did. This was a riveting performance from the scary A pedal point at the start right through to the blazing final bars. All players worked really intensely at atmosphere and expression as well as the demanding technical challenges. There’s always an element of caricature in a Mahler score and the wind were particularly alert to this in the second and third movements, giving spice to the orchestral sound without any danger of the charm becoming comedy. Darrell Davison was particularly impressive in his direction and interpretation. There will always be moments where a firm but subtle hand is needed to rectify a problem entry – this was done every time without drawing attention or distracting from the music’s sweep [99% of the audience won’t have seen – which is what that skill is all about]. The last movement can sometimes feel over-long but DD got the pacing just right – the horns’ stand was just as Mahler intended it to feel. Up to now the most thrilling Mahler 1s I’ve experienced live have definitely been youth orchestras – are the SSO on special medication? I want some.