To open this lunchtime Prom, here was Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture interpreted in a way I had not heard before and it reflected a very personal view of the music which I have no hesitation in describing as romantic. There was enormous freedom of tempo and Pablo Heras-Casado’s subjective approach had conviction. The hushed opening really did conjure a vision of a peaceful seascape and each theme was shaped and caressed in such a way as to make the composer’s inspiration come alive. There is a section late in the work where a clarinet takes over a beautiful theme. Often conductors will suddenly pull back the tempo here for effect but Heras-Casado was so subtle that the immensely slow annunciation of the melody was absolutely natural. This expansive approach, daringly expressive, held the attention.
Refinement was the essence of Isabelle Faust’s reading of the Violin Concerto and Heras-Casado was entirely at-one with her. I have heard her in music of the Classical period where she was firmly positive; however, in Mendelssohn softness and beauty were an essential element throughout. Her tone was elegantly silky and virtuoso display was not part of her vision. At the very outset she did not so much enter as emerge. Tempos were supple; a new melody would find the conductor gently preparing for its arrival. The cadenza found Faust expounding the melodic line with similar reserve and I admired the way that she approached the demanding moments where the orchestra takes up the themes and the soloist accompanies with brilliant rising and falling runs; here she withdrew her tone: a suitable employment of modesty. The slow movement found every phrase carefully shaped and the result was to make the swiftness of the Finale all the more convincing: fast but gentle.
An encore provided a contrast: Wagner’s rather solemn violin-and-orchestra arrangement of ‘Träume’ from his Wesendonck-Lieder, giving Faust the opportunity to distil her timbre even further for the dreamy quality required.
The ‘Reformation’ Symphony begins with the ‘Dresden Amen’ (later used by Wagner in Parsifal), which stemmed from the Catholic Church, and the work ends with the firmly Lutheran ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’. It is interesting to look at Mendelssohn’s religious influences; his parents converted to Christianity from Judaism and brought him up in that faith. He also wrote many Anglican Hymns but I don’t think there is programmatic intention in this Symphony to promote Protestantism and the use of church-related music was employed only because the work was written to celebrate the tercentenary of an important event in Lutheran history.
Heras-Casado was almost Classical in his approach – bold in the extensive Allegro con fuoco that follows the deeply tragic introduction, and there was unrelenting drive until, towards the end, the ‘Dresden’ theme is subtly re-stated by trombones. The Allegro vivace was made to sound much like a Scherzo – the composer’s intention I feel – and although the brief Andante gave the conductor the opportunity once again to be unashamedly romantic, there remained a sense of continuity. The Finale rests firmly upon the Lutheran chorale; Heras-Casado permitted no hint of grandiosity and simply drove the noble music firmly forward in an exhilarating manner, power achieved and the important bass line – supplemented by contrabassoon and serpent – made full impact. With this programme these artists were promoting their new recording.
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