United Kingdom Elgar, Grieg, Brahms. Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/ Jac van Steen (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 25.2.2016 (JQ)
Elgar – Falstaff, Symphonic Study in C minor, Op 68
Grieg – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 16
Brahms – Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op.90
Since I last reviewed a concert by the CBSO, back in January, they have made the exciting appointment of a new Music Director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Further appointments are awaited: a new Leader must be found to succeed Laurence Jackson, who departed for pastures new in Australia at the end of 2015 – I believe auditions are to take place in a few weeks’ time; and a successor to Edward Gardner as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor is yet to be named.
So change is in the air in Birmingham but for this programme there was a familiar figure on the podium in the shape of Jac van Steen, who has been a regular guest with the orchestra for several seasons. His programme included a substantial nod towards the CBSO’s “Our Shakespeare” season, marking the 400th anniversary of the death of The Bard. This came in the shape of Elgar’s Falstaff, a work that has a special niche in the CBSO annals since it formed part of the very first concert given by the orchestra. That was back in November 1920 when Elgar himself inaugurated the orchestra by conducting them in a programme of his own music. Indeed, it’s possible that Falstaff was the very first work played in public by the orchestra since the rest of Elgar’s programme that day comprised the Cello Concerto and the Second Symphony and it would have been logical to place Falstaff first on the bill. That’s how it featured this evening.
What a magnificent score Falstaff is! The imagination and skill behind the orchestration alone would be sufficient to place it among his very best works. However, in addition to that the composer’s depiction of people and incidents in music is quite superb. He showed a similar gift in The Apostles (1903) and these two works perhaps more than any others in his output may make us wonder what an Elgar opera might have been like.
In the opening few minutes of this performance, as characters like Prince Hal and Falstaff were laid before us and scenes such as Eastcheap and the robbery at Gadshill were illustrated, all the brilliance and swagger of Elgar’s score were there, the CBSO on sparkling form. The only nagging doubt at the back of my mind was that for long stretches of music Mr. van Steen’s beat seemed pretty unvarying. This may have been correct – I was not following in a score – but Elgar’s music is usually peppered with small but telling modifications of tempo and I didn’t notice these in this performance. The tipsy bassoon solo, not long before Falstaff dozes off, was very well played but seemed to me to be presented in a rather matter of fact fashion.
However, as the performance unfolded perhaps van Steen grew into the music. The first Dream Interlude was very nicely done – not least through some splendid solo work by leader Zoë Beyers, her playing cushioned by very delicate sounds from her colleagues in the string section. In this section there certainly was give and take in the pulse and from that point onwards any doubts I had in that regard were swept away. Falstaff’s March was full of brilliance and bravado and both Falstaff’s rejection by the new King Hal and even more so the death of the old knight were imaginatively and understandingly shaped by the conductor. In particular Falstaff’s demise was full of poignancy. This is a tremendously demanding score and I thought the CBSO gave a very fine account of it, responding strongly to van Steen’s direction.
The young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor joined the orchestra for Grieg’s Piano Concerto. It’s easy to understand the work’s enduring popularity, not least because the thematic material is so memorable. I realised that it had been some time since I heard the work and I was glad of that because the work came up very freshly here. That said, I think it would have sounded fresh anyway; such was the nature of this performance. I’ve seem Jac van Steen conduct on several occasions in the past and one of many things that has impressed me is the clarity of his direction. Prior to this evening, however, I don’t recall that I’ve seen him conduct a concerto but that clarity was much in evidence and I’m sure it helped tremendously in shaping a keen and responsive account of the orchestral accompaniment.
Grosvenor himself was very impressive. In the first movement he proved himself well equipped for the bravura passages but I was even more taken with the poetry in his playing. The cadenza offered an excellent illustration of both facets. He began it with reflective musing and then gradually increased the power of his playing so that there was a sense of the heroic as the cadenza reached its climax. The lovely slow movement began with gorgeous string playing; the sound was velvety and deep. Grosvenor was delicate and pensive in the early pages of the movement and then later invested the music with plenty of romantic expression. There was fine energy in the dancing music with which the finale opens. Later that tune was gorgeously introduced by principal flute, Marie-Christine Zupancic, her tone making the music sound like a draught of clear spring water. When his turn with the tune arrived Grosvenor relished it, yet there was no self-indulgence to his playing. After a return to the energetic material the apotheosis of the Big Tune had suitable grandeur but was not overblown either by Grosvenor or his conductor.
Following this excellent performance I noticed that it was not just the audience who showed their appreciation: Jac van Steen and the CBSO applauded Grosvenor with genuine enthusiasm. He gave us short, dexterous encore which I’m afraid I was unable to identify; what a pity that some artists don’t announce their encores.
After the interval we heard Brahms’s Third Symphony. In recent years I’ve heard and much admired a number of ‘lean’ performances of Brahms symphonies from conductors such as Sir Charles Mackerras, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Riccardo Chailly. The approach of conductors such as these is very stimulating and rewarding and has made me listen to Brahms in a new way. Jac van Steen’s performance struck me as more traditional in style and I enjoyed it immensely. He was unafraid to be expansive when he felt that the music called for it and I timed his performance at approximately 40 minutes overall, which is quite long for a reading of this symphony.
The first movement began strongly but before long the sunny geniality in the music was nicely brought out. The exposition repeat was taken, which pleased me. The development had muscularity at times but elsewhere van Steen relaxed in a pleasing fashion. I liked very much the way the rich hues of Brahms’s orchestral colourings were allowed to flourish. The second movement was paced in a relaxed fashion – this was a genuine Andante – and I particularly relished the mellow contribution of the woodwind choir in the opening pages. This was a winning account of the movement and the CBSO’s playing was delightful from start to finish.
The cello section sang out the lyrical theme at the beginning of the Poco Allegretto; later the principal horn, Elspeth Dutch presented this melody with satisfying warmth. Jac van Steen shaped this material and, indeed, the whole movement with affection and warmth. His pace was quite measured but not excessively so. The opening of the finale was not only hushed, as it should be, but also quite broad in speed, the music mounded by van Steen. Then the Allegro erupted with full vigour. The reading was quite powerful at times but eventually Brahms relaxes into a wonderfully tranquil extended coda. This coda was beautifully done on this occasion; I admired the rich hues of the woodwind and brass. At the close Brahms brings back his opening F-A-F motif and here it was a marvellous QED to a richly satisfying performance of this great symphony. Incidentally, it was good that this symphony concluded a programme that had begun with Elgar because I believe the Brahms Third was a favourite of Elgar; one can certainly hear echoes of Brahms’s coda in the closing pages of Elgar’s Second Symphony.
This was a most enjoyable concert in which the CBSO was in fine form. As I said at the start, the CBSO is currently looking for a Principal Guest Conductor. Having appointed a young, exciting Music Director they might be looking to “balance the ticket” with the appointment of a seasoned conductor. If so, I hope Jac van Steen’s name is on the shortlist.