United Kingdom Elgar, Walton: Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 18.2.2018. (SRT)
Elgar – Overture, Cockaigne (In London Town), Cello Concerto
Walton – Symphony No.1
This must have been a stressful weekend chez BBCSSO. John Wilson conducted this programme in Glasgow on Thursday evening, but then had to withdraw due to ill health, and at such short notice that they had to cancel their concert in Inverness on Friday evening. In stepped Martyn Brabbins to conduct in Edinburgh this afternoon, to great ovations from both audience and musicians: several times during the individual bows at the end, the players gave the credit to him rather than taking it for themselves.
In truth, if you hadn’t known about the switch then you wouldn’t have been able to tell, because Brabbins knows both this music and these musicians so well that the fit never sounded anything other than natural. Walton’s First Symphony sounded wonderfully tight and well controlled throughout, the first movement having the motivic driving force of an ostinato, with a real storm in the development and a glorious brass-led climax in the coda. Throughout this, and the subsequent biting Presto, Brabbins gave the impression of keeping a very powerful (yet still dangerous) machine under control, and the slow movement countered this with string tone that was replete with melancholy and a beautifully judged dying-of-the-light at the end. They kept something in reserve for the finale, however, which gleamed with energy right from the off. Ringing brass at the opening offset the razor-sharp strings in the admirably clean fugue, and the explosive coda dialled everything up to eleven in a way that was satisfying rather than vulgar.
Elgar’s Cockaigne also sounded as though it had been designed to show off the orchestra at their best. The opening motif was clipped and precise, with the strings giving a beautiful swoop in the second theme and a lovely, rich underpinning from the heavy brass. The trombones, in particular, really enjoyed their moment in the spotlight, and showed themselves to be admirably athletic in the process.
To go from these sunlit uplands to the melancholy world of the Cello Concerto is quite a leap, but it worked. Leonard Elschenbroich cut a rather Byronic figure on the stage, communing intensely with his instrument and seemingly disappearing inside the music he was producing. His playing was Byronic too, seeing the cello as an individual outside of the orchestra’s communion, standing out rather than integrating into the sound picture. Some cellists, like Natalie Clein, weave physically in and out of this music as though the cello were an extension of their person. Elschenbroich was much more detached, but that meant that the focus seemed to be more on the music than on him, and his deliberate underlining of the solo line was a perfectly valid reading of the score. The opening sequence, for example, was dispatched with intense concentration rather than a showy flourish, and that also characterised the scherzo and finale, for all that their music was faster and more delicate. The flourishes of the finale were transmuted into introspective melancholy before being swept away by the ending, but I most enjoyed his sublimely lyrical take on the slow movement, buoyed up by a beatific sound from the orchestral strings. And Brabbins? He kept the show on the road as though that had been the plan all along.