BBC SSO/Steffens

City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

ON the plus side for Frederic Chopin, the young woman seated at the Steinway – and Zlata Chochieva was making her UK orchestral concert debut on Thursday evening – is already recognised as one of the foremost exponents of his music in our time. Her account of his Piano Concerto No.1, which is in fact the second of the two he wrote in his short life, was a flawless one of such relaxed mastery that its technical challenges seemed irrelevant. Her firm and precise touch at the keyboard made no attempt to over-sell the tunes, or linger over them, even as the slow central movement unfolded in one beguiling experience.

On the debit side, the Polish composer’s work sat between the wonderful orchestration of Jean Sibelius and Robert Schumann, which did rather highlight the deficiencies of a work that is no favourite of conductors. Whatever skills the person on the podium has, there is no elevating the role of the orchestra in this concerto: all the drama of the work lies in the hands of the soloist.

Karl-Heinz Steffens was first clarinet at the Berlin Phil before his conducting life, and the beautiful wind ensemble the players of the BBC Scottish produced for him in the second movement of Schumann’s Symphony No.2 must have pleased him. Directing the work entirely from memory, his chief focus, however, was on the detail of the strings.

Some very nimble finger work is required in that Scherzo and then again in the Finale, but Steffens was concerned that the work’s tempo shifts and dynamic gradations were as meticulously executed. The handful of notes in the Adagio hardly qualifies as a melody, but the skill with which the theme is shared across the orchestra makes the shaping of it a particular challenge, which Steffens clearly relished.

The Swan of Tuonela, which opened the programme, is not just classic Sibelius but one of the most atmospheric and picturesque of late 19th century tone poems. The spotlight may have been on the cor anglais of James Horan, but leader Laura Samuel, first viola Scott Dickinson and returned principal cello Rudi de Groote all made equally lovely contributions.