MUSIC / Uncanny spells: Anthony Payne on the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Andrew Litton, at the Proms

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The Independent Culture
Making his last appearance as principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Saturday's Prom concert, Andrew Litton could not have signed off with a more appropriate work than Elgar's Second Symphony. It is one of the most poignantly valedictory of 20th-century masterpieces, and Litton brought affection and understanding to its alternation of public and private poetry.

His tempo was on the steady side during the first movement's tumultuous exposition, giving breathing space to the teeming life in the orchestral inner parts. The dream world which emerges in the central section, as if from a half-lit tunnel, cast its uncanny spell, and the restoration of impetuous activity later was sweepingly achieved. All was controlled with an ear for the mighty structure of this emotionally draining work, and the tragic ceremonial of the Larghetto sustained the grand line through climactic peaks.

The later stages of the symphony were no less carefully paced. We heard a glittering scherzo and a finale whose re-establishment of ceremonial images yielded over the final pages to a glowing farewell. All the movements had been individually applauded, and the orchestra and conductor's commitment had clearly carried Elgar's vision to the hearts and minds of all.

It is touching to know that a conductor born of a different musical culture from our own has taken so strongly to a composer who not long ago was felt to present barriers to foreign performers. This was all nonsense, of course. Elgar's musical language is perhaps the least parochial among our 20th-century composers, but it is reassuring to know that, on his return to America to take over the Dallas Symphony, Litton has promised to carry the flag for Elgar and other English music.

The concert had opened with a work that peculiarly spans the Atlantic: Bliss's Introduction and Allegro, written in 1926 for Stokowsky and the Philadelphia Orchestra. With his experimental chamber pieces behind him and the broader statement of A Colour Symphony, Bliss was able to bring a new individuality to the Elgarian tradition to which he had always felt he belonged.

His partly American lineage guaranteed a certain cosmopolitanism, and the final pages of this lively piece are able to pay homage to Stravinsky with easy assurance. Its integration of a romantic impulse with some of the modernisms of Bliss's own time still generates electricity. Allied to this is a natural brilliance in orchestral handling, splendidly realised by the Bournemouth players.

Completing the concert was a fine interpretation of Rachmaninov's First Piano Concerto by Stephen Hough, a performance superbly supported by Litton and his orchestra which brought a poetry and dramatic rhetoric which swept us away.