BBC National Orchestra of Wales Visit Czech Rivers


Smetana, Dvořák, Strauss, Janáček, Liszt: Fatma Said and Llio Evans (sopranos), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Otto Tausk (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 3.11.2017, (PCG)

SmetanaMá Vlast: Vltava
DvořákRusalka: Song to the Moon
StraussFour songs
JanáčekThe Danube

This concert’s programme centred around two depictions of rivers in eastern Europe, the later of which its composer conceived as a companion for the earlier. That earlier model was Vltava, the second movement and best-known of the cycle of six symphonic poems Smetana wrote on the theme of the geography and history of his fatherland. The conductor here, Otto Tausk, had quite a lengthy and amusing discussion about the piece with announcer Nicola Heywood Thomas. He laid some stress on the element of the country dance which forms one of the episodes in the work, attempting to get her to join him in some terpsichorean exercises (I cannot imagine what radio listeners made of all this). As it so happened, that same country dance was one of the less effective sections of an otherwise imaginative performance. The subtle unmarked rubatos which Tausk introduced formed a perhaps over-sophisticated element; but the tricky woodwind writing at the beginning of the following section which describes the water nymphs was delicately handled, and the performance built up a real head of excitement as it approached the return of the Vyšehrad theme (from the first symphonic poem of the Má Vlast cycle) towards the end.

Janáček had intended his depiction of The Danube to form a counterpart to Smetana’s piece. It was inspired by a walk beside the river when the composer was attending a performance of Káťa Kabanová in Bratislava in 1923. However, during the remaining five years of his life the music remained in sketch form, and it was not until 1948 that Osvald Chlubna prepared a performing edition. The programme note informed us that we were to hear a later and “more scholarly” version from 1985 by Leoš Faltus and Miloš Štědroň; but the announcement then advised that we were in fact to hear the Chlubna completion, although whether this was “less scholarly” was not made clear. (I am certainly not in a position to judge, beyond generally observing that Janáček’s handwriting in his sketches was always regarded as notoriously difficult to decipher.) The sound of the music was clearly that of Janáček, but the structure seemed curiously ramshackle, like a succession of fragments strung together (which is presumably exactly what it was). Pictorial depictions of anything related to the Danube were confined to hints of folk dances (sounding very reminiscent of passages from the contemporary Sinfonietta) but any sense of unity or symphonic development was conspicuously lacking. We were told that sections of the score derived from rejected material from The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropoulos Case, although whether this was the composer’s intention or simply an editorial attempt to furnish additional material was not made clear. The Makropoulos sketch included a part for solo soprano, described by Llio Evans as being like “a biopolar water nymph”—she coped well with the stratospheric writing, decidedly not Janáček-like, from her position in the back of the violins. Indeed the performance made out a good case for the score, but I was left wondering how much of a case could be made in the first place for a work which the composer himself had failed to complete over a period of five years, and with which he clearly remained dissatisfied.

Between these two scores, BBC New Generation Artist Fatma Said gave us a charming mini-recital consisting of Rusalka’s Song to the Moon and four early Strauss orchestral songs. The inclusion of the Dvořák aria was justified by the fact that it was sung by a water nymph (echoes of Vltava). As I pointed out, however, when reviewing a DVD of Rusalka for this site some time ago, the plot of the opera is far more than simply a fairy tale, containing as it does some surprisingly modern psychological depths. It seemed to take some time for the singer to find her full voice, although her mezza voce delivery was refined; but then in the Strauss songs she allowed her tone to blossom in a manner that reminded me in many ways of the sound of the young Gundula Janowitz. The delivery of the final lines of Zueignung had the full measure of Straussian passion, and the duet with Lesley Hatfield’s poised violin solo in Morgen! had a sense of inner stillness that held the packed audience spellbound. The two other songs, Allerseelen and Cäcilie, demonstrated perhaps that Said’s voice will never develop the full Wagnerian tones of an Isolde that Strauss surely imagined for music written with memories of his wife’s voice in mind. Still, her clarity of diction and subtle interpretation ensured that most of her vocal line came through. With increasing maturity she will surely be a great performer of this material. (Once again I must register my regret that the improved BBC programmes this year failed to provide texts or translations of the songs, but the material here is relatively well-known and one should not perhaps expect non-Anglophone singers to sing in English translation.)

The programme concluded with Liszt’s Hungaria, one of the less well-regarded of his symphonic poem. As always with this composer, one feels that a degree of compression might have contributed to the overall effect, but I found the score to be generally effective and — with its lack of a programme — less obviously contrived than Mazeppa, which we were given as part of this same series of concerts last month. Indeed, in an interpretation and performance like this, even the bombastic closing pages fell into place, never mind their Beethovenian insistence on piling one coda on top of another in a manner that recalls Malcolm Arnold’s parody in his Leonora Overture No.4. Earlier the delivery of the orchestral woodwind had produced a curious anticipation of Mahlerian textures and techniques in the march sections; one wonders indeed if Mahler, who was certainly not immune to influences, had known the score well. At all events, it made an upbeat ending to an enjoyable, and very well attended, afternoon concert.

The performances were broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and will continue to be available on the BBC iPlayer for the next month. One looks forward with anticipation to the return of Otto Tausk to the orchestra next summer, when he is scheduled to conduct them in Wagner at St David’s Hall.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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  1. Rob Harries says:

    In fact this concert was not broadcast live – it was recorded for a future ‘Afternoon on 3′ on Radio 3. It’ll be interesting to see if Otto Tausk and Nicola Heywood Thomas’ impromptu polka makes it onto the air!

  2. paul corfield godfrey says:

    My fault: I had assumed that this concert, like its predecessors in the themed short season, would be transmitted live. I imagine that the terpsichorean elements will be pruned before broadcast, which is a shame as the audience clearly enjoyed them.

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