Welsh National Opera Orchestra in a ‘Normal’ Concert in Cardiff

21/03/2019

Brahms, Mozart, Strauss: Paul Lewis (piano), Welsh National Opera Orchestra / Tomáš Hanus (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 20.3.2019. (PCG)

Tomáš Hanus

Brahms – Symphony No.3

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.27

StraussTill Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche

For some years now, Welsh National Opera have been organising their operatic seasons in Cardiff and on tour around specific themes. This policy continues this summer with an enterprising series of performances on the subject of freedom. That includes such rarely heard works as Dallapiccola’s Il prigionero (in a double bill with the second act of Beethoven’s Fidelio), Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Menotti’s The Consul and Krása’s Brundibar. In past years, these themed seasons have also tied in with the concerts presented by the WNO Orchestra as part of Cardiff’s International Concert Series at St David’s Hall. The linkage has produced some very enterprising and novel programming, including many rare items. Unfortunately on some occasions these unusual programmes seem for some reason to have deterred attendance by the Welsh National Opera’s usually enthusiastic Cardiff following, without appealing to the usual St David’s Hall audiences either. Possibly as a result, WNO appear to have abandoned their policy of linking these concerts to the operas being given down in Cardiff Bay at the same time. The presentation here consisted of a ‘normal’ concert programme of symphony and concerto accompanied by an opening item. Once again the attendance was abysmally small, with huge swathes of seating in the hall left untenanted – one wonders why, since attendances at these concerts last year appeared to have substantially increased.

In point of fact, this concert was not quite the normal event implied in the previous paragraph. The standard programme order was reversed. The most substantial work, the Brahms symphony, was given first, followed in the second half by the concerto and then the ‘opening item’. The conductor Tomáš Hanus took to the microphone at the outset to justify this somewhat unusual reversal of the expected procedure, explaining that the Brahms symphony was one of the composer’s more intimate scores. Well, up to a point: the first movement gathered a real sense of excitement as it progressed (complete with a repeated exposition which was far more than a literal repetition as it built in power and force), and the finale exploded with a violence that was only partially abated by Brahms’s gradually subdued development and conclusion. There was a novel touch, too, in the slow movement; the subtle pre-echo of the finale’s second theme in the middle section had a veiled and spectral quality which almost hinted at Sibelius – a definitely unexpected allusion. The orchestra clearly enjoyed themselves, and the violas placed on the extreme right of the stage relished their opportunities to claim the limelight that Brahms afforded them in so many passages of the score. Hanus, with his sweeping gestures, seemed to be delighted to give the players their heads, even though the often subtle variations in speed argued for careful preparation in rehearsal.

Clarity again was the watchword in the performance of Mozart’s last piano concerto. The strings were slimmed down, but this was not allowed to obscure the importance of the violin lines which match the solo piano in so many places. One might not think that such a point merited comment, but earlier that day I had heard a radio broadcast of a (widely praised) recording of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony under Franz Bruggen where the violins were hardly audible when set against the weight of chordal accompaniment from wind and even percussion. The critics who admire this sort of ‘authentic’ performance would doubtless have found Paul Lewis and Tomáš Hanus conventional and indeed anodyne; but I relished the sheer perfection of the music-making. Lewis gave a bow to authentic style with his always well-judged ornamentation of the solo line. Credit to him, too, for giving us Mozart’s own cadenzas in the first and last movements. Also, the tutti passage of seven bars in the first movement which Mozart had forgotten when he was writing out his manuscript was inserted in its proper place.

It was also clear that Hanus was eager to present Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel as a rumbustious scherzo romp in its own right irrespective of any detailed programmatic considerations. The programme for the concert (another of the WNO’s praiseworthy efforts, complete with colour illustrations and illuminating comments) quoted Strauss as reluctant to put his programme ‘into words which would often seem peculiar, and would possibly even give offence’. In these less easily shockable days, however, some guidance is really needed; and it is not always possible to fully appreciate Strauss’s more graphic passages without some knowledge of what the music is actually about. In Hanus’s brief introduction, he talked of Till’s unfortunate end without explaining precisely what this was. He seemed positively concerned in places to downplay the explicitly illustrative elements. The ‘large rattle’ as the practical joker overturns the market stalls (not elucidated in the programme) was circumspect. The stratospheric shrieking of the piccolo clarinet as Till is hanged (also not referred to in the programme) could have been even more vividly characterised. The orchestra clearly enjoyed themselves, and indeed did the audience. The slightly alarming positioning of the bass drum at the extreme right and very front of the stage ensured that its hammering rhythms had plenty of impact. The audience too made up in enthusiasm for what they lacked in numbers.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

For more about the WNO Orchestra click here.

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