BBC SSO / Wigglesworth
City Halls, Glasgow
Edward Elgar’s well-documented disappointment in the lukewarm reception accorded the premiere of his Second Symphony is more often remarked than that reaction itself. If the audience in 1911 expected memorable melodies and a climactic finale, they might indeed have been confounded by the piece.
The BBC SSO’s Chief Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth perhaps chose to end his first year with the work more because it is a suitably big piece for a season finale, requiring large forces on stage to perform the rich orchestration, rather than from a desire to leave the City Halls audience with a spring in its step and a song in its heart.
It was the conclusion to a concert that began with Richard Strauss’s rampantly colourful tone-poem Till Eulenspiegel, which not only shared those qualities, but was a fun place to start – especially in this particularly lively performance by the SSO musicians. From the opening statement of Till’s tune by guest first horn Christopher Gough onwards, the “merry pranks” of Strauss’s romp through the adventures of the medieval folk-hero were played with enthusiastic vigour, including fine E flat clarinet from Adam Lee.
Laura van der Heijden brought as much energy to the world premiere that followed: the BBC-commissioned Cello Concerto composed for her by Cheryl Frances-Hoad. Wigglesworth will have earned the thanks of cellists for helping this piece to funded completion, as Frances-Hoad, a Menuhin School cellist herself, has given them a substantial new work.
While the focus is on the soloist from the start, the composer has created orchestration which sat well with the past masters of the art on either side of it in this programme. There were moments towards the end of the opening movement when Van der Heijden’s busy fingering was not completely audible above the orchestra, but that may have been intended, and the broadcast of the concert on Thursday May 25 should clarify the question.
The work has an environmental inspiration – very clearly explained in the composer’s lucid programme note – and the final movement, entitled Air, seemed to balance the forces onstage more successfully. The work’s heart, however, is the slow movement, Sea, which not only seemed to evoke its inspiration most successfully, but brought to mind the classic concertos for the instrument by Dvorak and Elgar.
The latter’s Symphony No 2 featured the SSO strings in the top form we’d heard them all evening, with specific details, like the contrapuntal pizzicato bass line in the second movement, shining through. Great work from the trombones as well, while the five-strong percussion section, guest-led by Alasdair Malloy, put in a terrific shift.