César Franck’s symphonic poem Les Éolides, an orchestral rarity, opened this Ulster Orchestra concert under Jac van Steen. The work takes its inspiration from Leconte de Lisle’s poem, based on the Greek legend of the Aeolids the daughters of Aeolus, keeper of the winds. Premiered in 1877, this work has echoes of Wagner with its treatment of thematic material. This extremely satisfying performance was full of real conviction and superbly played. Phrases were carefully shaped, woodwind ideas growing organically out and back into the texture like gentle breezes, the strings sonorous throughout.

Louis Schwizgebel
© Marco Borggreve

Saint–Saëns’ five piano concertos should be core repertoire. Each is very approachable and demonstrates the composer's gift for melody, invention and vivid orchestral colour. Apart from the Second, which gets an occasional airing, the Fifth is possibly the next most popular. Treated to a remarkable performance from Swiss-Chinese pianist Louis Schwizgebel, it’s difficult to believe he was placed only second in the 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition. His sound projected effortlessly through the hall. This concerto allowed him to display all his refined technical skills with absolute assurance; hands were impeccably balanced, right-hand melodies projected with a cantabile tone, scale passages absolutely even, and staccatos crisp. Trills were measured and precise, chords voiced to perfection.

The first movement was very carefully controlled so as not to peak to early, a real intuitiveness between Steen and Schwizgebel apparent from the outset. Some gentle rubato in the orchestral passages created interest and a naturalness. The second movement quotes a Nubian song Saint-Saëns heard in Egypt at the time of writing, hence giving the work its “Egyptian” nickname. Although marked Andante, there was nothing pedestrian here. Schwizgebel played the solo part with a real sense of spontaneity and Steen’s careful orchestral direction added further freshness. Softer moments were mesmerising and the concluding bars were full of oriental mystery. The Molto allegro finale, was vibrant, exciting and fun putting the little tin hat (or should that be a fez) on a superb performance. Chopin’s Prélude in F sharp major followed as a most poetic encore, left-hand figures phrased with real sensitivity in this moment of reflective introspection.

Premiered in 1908, Elgar’s First Symphony was nine years in the making and was encouraged by Hans Richter who had given the first performance of the Enigma Variations. Throughout tonight’s performance one could hear Enigma all the way through. It was clear Steen knew both these Elgarian masterpieces intimately. This performance is one which could divide listeners. This was a rendition stripped of all foggy sentimentally, as if Aeolus’ winds had blown them all away. Steen’s approach was not only refreshing but it allowed the music to be appreciated in its rawest, simplest beauty, like heady mists dispersing to reveal the a Malvern landscape, a real breath of fresh air. 

Elgar said the opening theme of the first movement should be “noble and elevating”, something Steen seemed to keep back until its final appearance. With each reoccurrence of the theme it grew in intensity, character and mood, finally reaching its climax with a yearning, searching and questioning quality. There was such clear attention to the markings and phrasing which were executed with such musical precision from the players. The second movement had a dark foreboding to it. This movement had an aloofness, a modest restraint, but not in the British stiff upper-lip way, but something with a greater depth. The Adagio was a moment of sheer beauty, stillness filling the hall. The brass, who had been on top form all night, shone through in the final movement; their playing was flawless, rich in tone and perfectly balanced within the orchestral palette. The return of the march theme was quicker, grander, affirmative, knowing it had found its feet marching on with a sense of musical resolution.

Time seemed to fly-by. Despite having heard Elgar’s First several times in concert, each time conducted by an Englishman, I’ve never quite ‘got it’. Tonight was different. Tonight it clicked. Perhaps it takes a flying Dutchman on Hellenic breezes to bring out the best of Elgar.