“This was as close to perfection as live performance gets”
With Valentine’s Day approaching the RSNO presented a programme on Friday of overtly romantic music: Schumann, Elgar, and, yes, Britten. They were under the baton of Karl-Heinz Steffens, a conductor of a rising reputation throughout his native Germany and also Scandinavia, who proved himself more than worthy of the occasion.
This was a concert of two halves, the first entirely adequate, the second quite exceptional.
In the first piece, Britten’s An American Overture, the band was let down by the relatively poor quality of the music. Not a criticism I would usually level at this composer, but Britten did himself deny all memory or knowledge of the piece when it was discovered in 1972 (it was composed in 1941 as a commission) and had to be shown the manuscript in his own handwriting to prove its provenance. It remained unperformed for a further 11 years. With shades of Copland and even Bernstein, there were flashes of interest in an otherwise fairly monochrome piece. The orchestra played it well, including some very exposed parts early on and while grateful for my knowledge of the repertoire being expanded through the experience, I have no particular wish to hear it again.
Next up the – Oh, so romantic! – Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor. RSNO Artist In Residence Jan Vogler was ill (Boy, has this been a season for withdrawals in Edinburgh!) and BBC New Generation Artist and 2015 International Tchaikovsky prizewinner Andre Ionita gamely took his place. The quality of the performance grew as the piece developed, one wondering if Ionita was playing con sordino as the sound coming forth initially lacked the necessary volume, and orchestra and soloist seemed a little out of synch, hardly surprising given the last minute replacement. Nonetheless in the second movement Langsam Ionita’s playing matched the music better, and in the final movement he brought out the necessary volume. His pizzicato encore left no one in any doubt as to his technique.
And now to the piece that everybody, I guess, had come to hear: Elgar’s Symphony No 1 in A flat major. If ever a case could be made for discipline in art, this was it. It would have been so easy to produce a piece of crowd pleasing schmaltz, but the words that come to my mind when analysing Steffens’s fine conducting and the orchestra’s magnificent playing are control, timing, tautness, controlled expression. Steffens showed himself to be a master of tempi, holding back and letting forth the players time and time again, including the final build-up in the brass where no one put a foot wrong. The flutes (I had seen Principal Flute Katharine Bryan chatting relaxedly in the hospitality suite only minutes earlier) kicked off the famous nobilmente with complete aplomb. I heard the cor anglais part clearly for the first time ever, and we were wafted away by the joyous playing of two harps in the final movement. This was as close to perfection as live performance gets. For that magical fifty minutes the RSNO were a world class orchestra. Bravo!
Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 9 February)
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