Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser makes an imposing concert opener, and with a smiling Jac van Steen at the helm of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra he fashioned a performance that amply caught the opera’s solemnity and passion. It was a well-balanced account that, in its heart on sleeve emotions, neatly prepared us for Walton’s Cello Concerto.

Quirine Viersen © Marco Borggreve
Quirine Viersen
© Marco Borggreve
This work was a commission from the renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky who gave its first performance in Boston, Massachusetts in January 1957 and then again in London the following month. The composer regarded it as the best of his three solo concertos, and in this performance, given by Dutch cellist Quirine Viersen, it was not difficult to hear why. Strange then that critical reaction at its London première was so mixed and in some cases distinctly hostile. But in Poole, where this work is not often played, the BSO, van Steen and Viersen brought off a performance of rapt intensity – all the more memorable for its meticulous preparation and where Walton’s full orchestral palette was heard to advantage without intruding on the soloist. For this is very much a concerto characterised by collaboration rather than confrontation, and here the partnership between the performers was outstanding.

The first movement can sound pedestrian if its moderato marking is taken too literally. But here, with a well-judged tempo, events unfolded with ease, its natural momentum preserved even when van Steen periodically relaxed the tempo. Viersen seemed completely at home in the concerto’s bittersweet soundworld, and totally assured in its soaring lines where her intonation, particularly in the cello’s higher reaches, was impeccable. Not only was she technically secure, but there was much warmth and beauty of tone, her love of the work suggested in every bar. She had no qualms in the Scherzo, and almost gleefully dug in to her strepitoso passage, and the final bars were magnificent. Her two cadenzas in the finale showed off her wonderful singing style and intelligent musicality. 

After the interval – and with Walton still in my head – Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major felt somewhat brash. With hands that seemed to fling down the opening bar, Van Steen’s approach throughout was eager rather than restrained, passionate without the nuance achieved earlier. The orchestra responded accordingly with ardent strings, clarity from the woodwinds and plump tone from the brass, but only occasionally did van Steen rein in his players to produce a less obvious tone. In the first movement we had all the emotional highs but few, if any, lows – that sense of struggle and even mystery was lost here and the thrilling climax that launches the recapitulation failed to register because the ‘lid’ had been taken off too soon.

Pizzicato double basses and cellos set in motion the Andante movement – an arresting idea that could have been more atmospheric, but one here which provided an anchor for some eloquent bassoon playing. Strings impressed in the runaway third movement, where its Vivacissimo marking was strictly observed. Edward Kay’s smoothly delivered oboe solo provided respite from the outward fever. An effortless transition took us to the finale where its heroic release, far from emerging as hard won, merely sounded loud and extravagant. But if the emotional journey to this point had not had the anticipated cumulative impact the ending was magnificent, brass wonderfully resplendent.  

In honour of the Queen’s birthday the evening ending with the National Anthem, with the audience eventually rising to the occasion.

****1