Steffens’s Bold and Noble Elgar First Symphony

11/05/2017

Wagner, Schumann, Elgar: Yulianna Avdeeva (piano), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Karl-Heinz Steffens (conductor), The Lighthouse, Poole, 10.5.2017. (IL)

Wagner – Prelude to Act I – Parsifal

Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor

Elgar – Symphony No. 1 in A flat Major

Karl-Heinz Steffens’s bold and noble reading of Elgar’s First Symphony brought the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s 2016/2017 concert season to a triumphant close last night. It does not seem that long ago that non-British conductors rarely, if ever, considered performing this work. How that situation has changed. The opening movement was read with style and panache. Steffens propelled it forward strongly, never allowing detail to mar shape and form. The following Adagio molto, the scurrying strings, the proud march and that lovely pastoral episode that Elgar wanted playing like “something you hear down by the river”—all gelled delightfully. The heart of the symphony, the exquisite Adagio, was for the most part beautifully realised. My only quibble was that those horn calls right at the very end were, for me, too prominent; a quieter response gives a sense of perspective and even a sense of mysticism. The closing Lento-Allegro was very exciting, with the brass letting rip, but I did feel that the build-up to that gorgeous tune before the final peroration could have been given that bit more enthusiasm.

It may not be PC to write this but I always feel that Schumann’s Piano Concerto suits feminine hands so well. After all, it was written for the composer’s wife; and Clara did perform the solo part in the 1846 premiere. Yulianna Avdeeva brought grace, delicacy and power to her reading of this evergreen concerto, always finding a fine rapport with the orchestra. The demanding first-movement cadenza and the beguiling beauty of the Intermezzo were of particular note. The Allegro vivace finale whirled, danced and skipped away with sparkle and gusto.

The concert began with a rapt reading of Wagner’s sublime mystical music for his Parsifal. Terry Barfoot’s concert programme notes, always a model of their kind, reminded us that Elgar had, in 1882, “heard a performance of the Prelude… and later he would play among the violins at the UK premiere of the work, at the Three Choirs Festival”.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s concert programme for the 2017/2018 season has now been published (click here). Works to be performed include: Mahler’s, Shostakovich’s and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphonies, Debussy’s Printemps and La Mer (Debussy died in 1918) etc.—plus Rachmaninov’s The Bells and his magnificent Third Piano Concerto.

Ian Lace

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