Review: BSO’s ‘Songs From The Heart’ @ Exeter Great Hall

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s evening of late-German Romanticism on Thursday was the logical continuation of their 2018/19 season, following the Beethoven of two weeks ago. From the sublimity of the 19th century, the audience was this week given an insight into the ever-so delicate aestheticism of sentimentality. Whilst each piece was highly personal to their respective composers, they also illustrated the last throes of an artistic movement largely out-manoeuvred by modernism, and the capability for emotional connection, regardless of social and cultural situation. The BSO’s performance was, once again, gladly received, and applauded with deserved enthusiasm throughout.

Guest conducting the performance was Karl-Heinz Steffens, whose impressive career has taken him across Germany and throughout Europe, and soon onto North America. He has done especially extensive work with Brahms compositions, completing multiple cycles of his work, including one with the Philharmonia Orchestra, in which he not only conducted, but also appeared as a clarinet soloist. He was therefore perfectly situated to lead the post-interval Fourth Symphony. His skill was, however, demonstrated equally admirably in the first half, which began with the Siegfried Idyll.

Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll is a testament to the composer’s flexibility as an artist. Although not originally intended for the public, Wagner eventually relented and premiered the piece, which had in fact been a gift to his second wife for her birthday, and following the birth of their son, the titular Siegfried. Rather than positing his new son as the operatic hero so familiar within Wagner’s oeuvre, the idyll instead takes on a tone of caring fidelity. This was drawn out by the BSO’s mastering of the piece, with a restraint of the horns exercised by Steffens according to the tone of the piece, and Amyn Merchant leading the violins in an impressive grasping of Wagner’s subtleties.

Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs are, indeed, his final completed works. Based on several poems by both Eichendorff and Hesse, Strauss’ pieces offer a haunting refrain to the life (his life) of one of the twentieth-century’s most celebrated composers, and stand-out in the post-war, art world as a heart-wrenching iteration of near-extinct Romantic music. The soprano for these four pieces was Allison Oakes, whose globe-trotting career has seen her perform in operas by both Wagner and Strauss. Although born in the UK, Thursday marked just her second performance in the country (the first being the evening directly preceding) and her voice did credit to her international acclaim. She brought out the strange vitality in a series of works, imbued with a sense of an approaching end. The final lines of the fourth song, “We are so wander-weary – could this perchance be death?” rose to prophetic heights with her and the orchestra’s rendering of such powerful emotion.

As mentioned, Steffens’ familiarity with Brahms put him in good stead with the academically imposing nature of the composer’s fourth, which is perhaps his finest work absent of both the iron-fisted clutch of Beethoven and the musedom of Clara Schumann. The originality of the final two movements caused some consternation upon its composition, but now it marks a triumph of Brahms’ musical innovation. This was very much at the heart of the orchestra’s performance, which introduced each theme and its return in correspondingly contrasting manners, rectifying the initial beauty and developing it into thoroughly disparate natures. Despite an apparent inaccessibility in the music, the BSO revealed the potency of the diverse and complex polyphony, working to achieve the desperately tragic finale of the last symphony of one of the world’s greatest composers.

-Ben Britton

Photo Credits: Eric Richmond

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