Welsh National Opera Concert Complements Their Russian Season

24/11/2017

Shostakovich and Mahler: Tara Erraught (mezzo-soprano), Welsh National Opera Orchestra / Tomáš Hanus (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 23.11.2017. (PCG)

Shostakovich – Symphony No 7 in C, Op.60 ‘Leningrad’

MahlerLieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

This concert not only formed part of the St David’s Hall International Concert Series for 2017-2018, but was also a link with the current Welsh National Opera programme commemorating the centenary of the Russian Revolution. It complemented a season of operas consisting of Eugene Onegin, Khovanschina and The House of the Dead. The principal work for the evening, Shostakovich’s massive Leningrad Symphony, paralleled similar events in previous seasons when the opera orchestra have given concert performances of pieces which reflected the concerns of the relevant season —and some very enterprising and interesting programmes have been the result, too.

The Leningrad Symphony also made an interesting parallel with Shostakovich’s Twelfth, which the BBC National Orchestra of Wales had performed in this same hall the month before; and BBC Radio 3 broadcast both concerts live, to underline the links even more strongly. Both these symphonies have perhaps too easily been categorised as works which reflect Shostakovich in patriotic mood, with the element of Soviet realism to the fore. As I observed, however, when reviewing the BBC NOW concert, there are uneasy subtexts to both scores which dismissive critics can too easily overlook. The programme notes for this concert (undeservedly the writer was left uncredited: the WNO inform me that it was Hedd Thomas) suggested that the composer was intending surreptitiously to commemorate the victims of the Stalinist purges, a statement which I believe originated from the controversial ‘memoir’ Testimony only published after Shostakovich’s death. Even so, the original programme whereby the first movement depicted the German invasion of the USSR certainly seems to fit the music without any revisionist interpretations. One thing is odd, though: there are of course some extremely loud and defiant passages, but much of the music is reduced to a very thin texture and even solo instrumental lines; against those, the climaxes stand out in stark but intermittent relief. And in this performance the dynamic range was extremely wide. While the climaxes in the first and last movements constituted some of the loudest sounds I have ever heard an orchestra produce in this hall (the timpani and bass drum at the end were overwhelming), the still moments such as the opening of the notorious march sequence in the first movement hovered on the very brink of audibility.

Some conductors have sought to downplay the histrionic elements in the music and emphasise the elements of purely symphonic structure; others have highlighted the dramatic contrasts and brought out the expressiveness of the sometimes spare string melodies. Tomáš Hanus fell definitively into the latter category, earnestly beseeching the violins and cellos to invest their lines with all the emotion that they could contrive; some might have condemned the effect as vulgar, but the audience loved the result, and the music can certainly bear the weight of suffering which the composer surely intended to convey. Balances were generally impeccable (oddly enough the precise battery of three side drums could have been lambasted with even more horrifying definition), and the interplay between the two groups of heavy brass placed to the left and right of the stage came across superbly. Those who listened to the broadcast at home cannot have begun to appreciate the sheer theatricality of this performance, and no domestic sound system could have attempted to cope with the massive dynamic contrasts that so forcefully struck the audience in the hall. The orchestra received a standing ovation at the end, and deservedly so; despite its occasional longueurs, Shostakovich’s longest symphony is fully vindicated by a performance such as this.

Before the interval we had been treated by way of contrast to a beautifully controlled and quietly intense performance of Mahler’s early song cycle Songs of a Wayfarer by the Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught. Her quiet declamation of the vocal line in many places recalled to mind the bleached white tone which Janet Baker brought to these songs; at the other end of the scale she rose to the challenge posed by the orchestra in the tempestuous ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ despite Mahler’s often violent scoring. She properly adopted a flexible approach to the rhythm (Mahler himself notated some passages differently in the orchestral and piano versions of the score) and sometimes there was a slight lack of precision in the ensemble, but Tomáš Hanus gave Mahler’s delicate touches just the right sense of disembodiment in the first and last songs, matching the singer’s interpretation ideally. The programme commendably supplied translations of the songs, which can only have served to heighten the audience’s appreciation of the subtlety of the artists’ approach. The work itself seemed an odd companion for the rumbustious symphony that was to follow after the interval (were there really no Russian songs that could have slotted into the programme?) but nonetheless one was grateful to encounter such a glowing performance of these songs, which can sometimes seem lightweight by comparison with Mahler’s later and more glowering settings. Tara Erraught is rapidly establishing a major reputation as one of the great Irish singers of our generation, and deservedly so; she recently made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and an international career clearly beckons.

During the international seasons at this hall over the last couple of years, it has been gratifying to see the size of the audiences increasing. It was therefore both disappointing and perplexing to see swatches of empty seats at this concert. Are the substantial audiences who attend Welsh National Opera performances in Cardiff simply not interested in concert performances that supplement and complement the stagings they are seeing? If so, they are missing something of tangible importance. It is in concerts like these that the orchestra really has a chance to shine, and when they are heard at full (and indeed augmented) strength in such works as the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, the sheer weight and passion of their performances under Tomáš Hanus can be fully appreciated—as we heard a year ago in his performance of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. The orchestra are giving two further concerts at St David’s Hall during the current season, and listeners should really make a point of hearing Hanus in Dvořák and Beethoven next spring. Listening at home (even if the BBC broadcast these concerts) will give them only a partial impression of performances like the Shostakovich here. For those who missed the live broadcast, the relay will be available on the BBC iPlayer for the next month, and both the Mahler and the Shostakovich will reward investigation.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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