Review: BSO Strings Drive a Hairpin Bend at 100mph

Photo credit: Paul Valentine.

Community reporter, Paul Valentine, reviews the recent Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) performance, Superhuman Strauss, and is far from disappointed

Well here we are at the Guildhall in Portsmouth again. Tonight, I am full of expectancy; there is nothing like a large orchestra to clear the mind. Parking is a bit of a faff but my fault for taking too long to get ready, unlike the orchestra who appear eager to start. I look around and take a little time to appreciate the refurbishment of this grand place, remembering how dull and awful it once was.

Tonight’s conductor, Karl-Heinz Steffens enters to appreciative applause. I was very taken by this ‘Leonore Overture No 3’, for some it would be a reasonably rehearsed warm up but clearly not for Steffens. His control of pace rhythm and sound control are expertly driven, particularly in those piano moments. His intuitive sense of perfect rhythm, particularly in the first double time, was perfect. In this he was able to establish with ease the nobility, the lyricism and the occasional musical joke of this short introduction to the Fidelio Opera. The principle flautist Anna Pynne – brilliant as ever, and Bassoonist Tammy Thorn deserved special applause, but we were not given the chance to give a special applause to the fanfare from over the hill; maybe next time.

The Beethoven 1st Piano Concerto was played here by Andrew Tyson, an upcoming young pianist whose romantic interpretations have made him popular the world over. This was a very fine performance by the orchestra, eclipsed by some fine piano playing throughout this beautifully lyrical classical piece. My notes state that there were some intensely delicate phrasing by the orchestra matched by erudite control of the piano’s reply; closing in a perfect circle. Tyson was well applauded and gave a stunning encore that I couldn’t place, but sounded very like a Scarlatti sonata. Of note the strings section, but the clarinets were outstanding in the second movement, not surprising I guess, since Steffens is himself one. And I never seem to mention a timpanist. But I have now – Sacha Johnson was absolutely flawless, which for me was a great omen for what was to come.

And so on to the ‘piece de resistance’. I noted that in the entire performance area there was room for only 2 other players apart from maybe a couple of extra percussionists. We were in for a musical treat. I had seen this previously performed under Norman del Mar at the Proms and at the RFH under Previn. I did wonder at the small church organ in comparison to the former giants, but actually preferred the opening of this performance. Whether it was because I could clearly hear the ‘contrabassoon’, and preferred the smaller opening, I’m not sure, but it sounded weirdly wonderful. Indeed, please let me know if you know of a weirder opening to any piece, I’m sure there are many.

This rendition explored the extremely colourful and tonal extravaganza. It is a very demanding piece for the whole orchestra, but particularly for the strings who are demanded to drive a hairpin bend at 100 miles an hour – and they did it with superb control with no need for any breaking – a sure sign of a good rehearsal. Indeed, at the ‘Of Joys and Passions’, I thought; please, please let there be a recording of this! I do hope that there is.

Apart from the colour, there was also tremendous richness, vibrancy and percussive luminescence, but all in a controlled world of sound that included some pianissimos of intense tonal beauty. Brass, strings woodwind and percussion were all magnificent – at the top of their game, and the technical team should have special mention as well because it is not easy to give balance to such an orchestra as this without squeezing elements out.

I suppose I was a little disappointed at the ovation because I was truly blown away by this powerful and superlative performance (even told not to clap so hard at one stage!), although maybe this has might be something to do with the purposefully dissonant ending rather than anything else. But frankly, I think even the ‘Concertgebouw’ would be hard pressed to beat this performance, it was that remarkable.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra programme continues at the Guildhall on Friday 15th March with The Music of Williams and Zimmer [Sold out]. For more information and to see all forthcoming performances at the Guildhall, see their website, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.