United Kingdom Schumann, Elgar: Martin Stadtfeld (piano), Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (conductor), City Hall, Sheffield, 24.1.2015 (JK)
Schumann: Piano Concerto
Elgar: Second Symphony
Audiences expecting a substantial first half of this concert were disappointed in finding that they were being presented with only one work that lasted less than half an hour. What was worse was the unconvincing journey to which we were treated when the concerto itself presents such ample opportunity for invention and delight. The lack of dynamic range from the piano may have been partly due to the appalling acoustic of the hall. However, nothing could hide the anodine passage work that poured from the piano in the final movement when Schumann demands an exhalation of joy.
The curious though well-established layout of the orchestra that Sir Mark Elder requires which sees the second violins seated opposite the first works well for music with antiphonal effects. But the Schumann concerto has only a very few bars where this occurs. So the placing of cellos beside the first violins created a powerful wall of string sound on the left of the conductor whilst the seconds (with their f holes pointing away from the audience) and the violas (hidden behind the tail of the piano) struggled to match their counterparts on the other side of the stage. It is an unfortunate fact that conductors forget that the place where they stand in easy hearing of the second violins is not what the audience hears. The back two desks of the first violins were actually placed partially behind the front desk of the cellos (probably with line of sight problems to their conductor): a fact that may have explained the noticeable failure of these back desks to place their accompaniment in time with their own front desks in a couple of places in the first movement.
The second half was a total contrast. The orchestra and conductor have made this symphony one of their signature works. Sir Mark Elder decided to provide a short speech describing each movement before it began. This helped dispel the often misguided notion that the great second movement was written as a funeral march in memory of King Edward VII (Elgar actually composed this after the death of a close friend). The frequent problem that besets professional orchestral musicians of feeling that they just have to turn up, churn out what they are used to, and go home has to be shaken off by the conductor and the enthusiasm of their colleagues. The fact that the Elgar is a masterpiece also seemed to inspire some so that the spectacular third movement sparkled with a fire that would be missing if the players were bored. By the end, the players performed with a gravity and commitment that found them playing as one without the amateurism that bedevilled the concert’s first half.
Sheffield is unusual in being England’s fourth largest city without its own professional orchestra (whilst smaller cities have their own). So the city welcomes the visit of the Hallé from the other side of the Pennines. Unfortunately, the only venue on offer remains a nineteenth century building whose acoustic provides nothing in support of orchestral sound. Playing away from home in a hall that distorts whatever is played, the visiting orchestra performed as well as it could in the second half.