BBC NOW Bring Romantic Warmth to St David’s Hall

22/04/2018

Brahms, Strauss, Mozart: Aga Mikolaj (soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Otto Tausk (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 20.4.2018. (PCG)

MozartLe nozze di Figaro: Overture

StraussFour Last Songs

Brahms – Symphony No.4

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales has reverted to the mainstream repertory after its celebrations over the last fortnight of ninety years of existence, in which we encountered a series of premières and neglected scores. Where their own Hoddinott Hall in the Wales Millennium Centre on Cardiff Bay has a resonance which can sometimes border on the overwhelming in large-scale romantic scores, the St David’s Hall in central Cardiff can sometimes have a rather unforgiving acoustic, with a really refulgent sound hard to obtain except in the most lavishly scored music. But here Otto Tausk managed to obtain a solidity and weight which is unusual in this venue, and his reading of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony had a real sense of excitement. The full strength of the BBC NOW strings, lithe and passionate, rang out in the hall – and even the failure to separate first and second violins, so often damaging in scores of this period, was less troublesome in this symphony where Brahms surprisingly fails to exploit the stereo separation between them to the same extent that he does in his earlier essays in the medium. The triangle entry in the scherzo – another novelty in Brahms’s scoring – could perhaps have been a little more prominent, but the fact that such a minor issue should be considered worth mentioning points to the general excellence of this performance. Neil Shewan’s horn playing at the opening of the slow movement deserves a special mention.

We began with a lively account of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture, bubbling along at a headlong pace, with the ensemble of the large romantic orchestra almost threatening to come apart. But it did hold together, and it is a real advantage in this music to have the presence of a large body of strings (such as Mozart rejoiced to find on the rare occasions when he was provided with one). The remainder of the rather brief first half of the concert was taken up by a performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, with the Polish soprano Aga Mikolaj extending her voice over Strauss’s long-breathed lines with only occasional pauses for much-needed breath. She does not have the refulgent tone of Kirsten Flagstad, who gave the first performance following the composer’s death. She has, however, studied under Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who established a formidable reputation in these songs during the 1950s and 1960s, and her subtlety of interpretation echoed that singer. Perhaps her creamy voice is a shade too light when set against Strauss’s intricate orchestral web (and Tausk did not stint on the emotional weight of the harmonic texture), and I wonder whether her voice would have penetrated with sufficient strength to the upper reaches of the hall. Even so, from where I was sitting in the stalls she came across with a real sense of beauty, and her delicate poetic touches made exactly the right sort of emotional impact. The concert was being broadcast live and listening to her singing the following day on the BBC iPlayer reveals the real engagement of the singer with the words. Congratulations are due also to the BBC who supplied the complete texts and translations in the programme booklet, along with excellent notes on the music by Stephen Johnson and David Nice, which contained some delightful sidelights on the psychological impact of Strauss’s selected texts.

At the end of the concert Otto Tausk furnished us with an unexpected encore. I am delighted that the habit now seems to have been formed that performers at these concerts are making a point of announcing in advance what it is they are playing. Indeed this would have been vital in this case, since the orchestral interludes from Strauss’s autobiographical opera Intermezzo are hardly familiar fare, although the performance here of one of them will I suspect have sent many listeners scurrying to track down a recording of one of Strauss’s most luxuriantly romantic jewels. It made a marvellously delicious conclusion to a rewarding evening.

 Paul Corfield Godfrey

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