Review: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Cheltenham Town Hall
THIS two-composition concert was a live broadcast on Radio 3, and listeners would have been as delighted as the Cheltenham audience with the excellence of the performance.
It was a joy to see the Town Hall stage full to capacity with this splendid orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, timpani squeezed into one side of the organ, trombones and tuba on the other.
The two works we heard were composed within c. 50 years of each other, yet how different in style. Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor displays the Romanticism of the 1840s, opening with a piano flourish and continuing with melting melodies throughout.
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In the hands of master of the keyboard John Lill, this was a display of musicianship. A sensitive performer without flamboyance, he brought out the dialogues between orchestra and piano and gave Schumann's first movement cadenza a thoughtful reading.
Moving easily from the lyrical second movement into the Allegro vivace, he captured the energy of its swinging rhythm, carrying us along to the energetic finale.
Elgar had already composed many successful works before his Symphony No 1 in A flat appeared in 1908. This was the year that Schoenberg was writing his monodrama Erwartung, but there is nothing athematic or atonal in this English composition, fixed firmly in recognisable musical form. Whereas the Schumann was lyrical, Elgar gives us sweeping melodies and rich orchestral timbres.
From the first expansive melody with its walking bass accompaniment to the final bars of the last movement – a magical moment – conductor Jac van Steen was in total command, bringing out melodic counterpoint, and drawing rich depths of tone from the orchestra.
With nods to Wagner and Mahler, this symphony seemed to echo the opulence of its time and van Steen and the orchestra showed us that richness.