The Conductor’s Curse of Beethoven in Cardiff Strikes Again


Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner: Rudolf Buchbinder (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jonathan Bloxham (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 14.4.2018. (PCG)

WagnerPrelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde

Schumann – Piano Concerto

Beethoven – Symphony No.5

St David’s Hall has been really unlucky this season with its programmed Beethoven symphonies. A couple of months ago, Xian Zhang had to cancel at the last minute her appearance with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to conduct the Ninth. At this concert, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla had to postpone her Cardiff début with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for a programme which featured Beethoven’s Fifth. One might almost suspect a malignant curse descending on these events. In any case, here the last-minute substitute was the orchestra’s Assistant Conductor Jonathan Bloxham, although it was not clear to what extent he had been able to impose any ideas of his own onto what one imagines was a fairly thoroughly rehearsed performance under the originally scheduled conductor who has gathered such critical plaudits during her opening season in Birmingham.

Mind you, this was not the only alteration to the published programme. That had promised us a rare chance to hear Wagner’s own 1859 arrangement of the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod:  the music of the first section is dovetailed into that of the second without the unfortunate element of stop-start which we experience when the excerpts from the score are usually given (and as is inevitable when they are given with a soprano soloist). Ernest Newman in his Wagner Nights observed that the Wagner arrangement was considered ‘standard’ before the Second World War, and the composer’s own programme note prepared for his patron King Ludwig II clearly demonstrates that this was the version which he expected to be performed. It is, however, almost unknown nowadays (it made an appearance at a Prom back in 2012), so I was much looking forward to hearing it again. No such luck. What we had here was the ‘normal’ version where the Prelude dies down into silence, only to be followed by a brief pause and then the closing section of the opera, without voice, rising once again from stillness to a second climax. And, although that second climax was superbly achieved (the woodwind playing throughout was superb), the climax of the Prelude itself was unduly rushed with an acceleration which reduced the rising trumpet chromatics – which can be gut-wrenching when allowed time to make their impact – to an almost incidental feature.

There was a similar contrast of approach in Bloxham’s interpretation of the Beethoven Fifth. The integrity of Beethoven’s score was insisted upon, as in the bassoon delivery of the ‘fate theme’ during the first movement recapitulation (it is often reinforced by horns, which in Beethoven’s day would not have been able to deliver the relevant notes although they do so during the exposition). We were also given the repeat of the first movement exposition which is so necessary to balance the proportions of the music at that point. On the other hand, Beethoven’s explicit instructions for repetition in both the Scherzo and finale – in the latter case providing for the return with two additional bars that were here simply omitted – were ignored. In the case of the Scherzo, this seriously unbalances the movement, since the skeletal return of the material after the trio lacks its intended ‘shock effect’ if it has not been sufficiently well established beforehand. The short-winded impression which resulted was not assisted when the insistent timpani rhythms, which should dominate the transition to the finale, were insufficiently well delineated. A similar problem of balance arose towards the end of the final movement, when the skirling piccolo solo (Beethoven specifically importing the instrument into the classical orchestra with the perky effect in mind) failed to pierce through the orchestral tutti with the cheeky vulgarity that is surely part of the composer’s intention. On the other hand, the unusual phrasing of the brass melody in the second movement made real sense in its context, an example of a new perspective illuminating the music. It is of course hard to determine which of these elements were due to which conductor.

Between these two works, renowned in their day as pioneering masterworks, we heard the Schumann Piano Concerto. It is perhaps harder in this day and age to recognise the many novel elements in this score, such as the extensive use of the soloist in conjunction with the orchestra to set out the basic material of the first movement. The concerto can also suffer from an excess sense of gentility in performance, possibly deriving from the fact that it was originally written for the composer’s wife Clara, leading soloists to give their delivery a ‘feminine’ tone, whatever that may be; but here Rolf Buchbinder gave us plenty of forceful declamation which served to drive the music forward, and even managed to minimise the sheer repetitive nature of much of the figuration in the finale. The result made for very exciting results, and the players made a considerable impression in Schumann’s sometimes rather thick orchestration. We did perhaps miss some element of give-and-take between soloist and conductor, but under the circumstances that is hardly a cause for complaint.

The audience thoroughly enjoyed themselves, although the hall was far from full. I do not think that this can have been the result of the last-minute change of conductor, since the hall’s website was still advertising the appearance of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla as recently as the afternoon of the concert. One would, however, welcome the chance to hear Jonathan Bloxham in a programme which he had had the opportunity to fully rehearse himself, rather as a last-minute stand-in. The orchestra played for him with assurance and warmth, and the division of the violins to left and right across the stage paid real dividends in both the Schumann and Beethoven.

 Paul Corfield Godfrey

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  1. Concert Listener says:

    It was overall a very nice concert, but couldn’t help feeling that Mirga was missed.

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