BBC NOW’s Swansea season closes with Isabelle Faust

Schubert, Sibelius and Brahms: Isabelle Faust (violin) BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Jac van Steen (conductor) Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 4.6.2011 (GPu)Schubert, Symphony No.8, ‘Unfinished’

Sibelius, Symphony No.7

Brahms, Violin Concerto

This was the last of the season’s concerts given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, a season in which the concerts were rather less numerous than they were a few years ago. One naturally feels that that is a sad state of affairs – even more poignantly after a concert as fine as this.

The performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony with which the programme began was not especially remarkable. It was a just a little on the stolid side, not as responsive to Schubert’s subtle poetry as it might have been; nor were the dynamic contrasts in the first movement as telling as might be wished. Similarly the close of the Andante didn’t quite articulate the exquisite serenity of the finest performances. This was, though, a thoroughly professional performance, even if it had just a slight feel of the routine about it (though, to be fair, I can’t remember the last time I heard the BBC National Orchestra of Wales play this symphony).

In the past, Jac van Steen has more than once given excellent performances of Sibelius symphonies with this orchestra (of which he is Principal Guest Conductor). I had, therefore, high hopes of this performance of the Seventh, surely one of the most remarkable symphonies of its time (it dates from 1924). Its single movement span is a kind of summation, intensely condensed, of its composer’s understanding of the symphonic concept, tightly integrated writing, alluding to aspects of both rondo and sonata form. After, say, Mahler and Bruckner its brevity can seem austere, but when well-played it is revealed, in fact, to possess a remarkable abundance of idea and effect. This was, fulfilling my pre-concert hopes, a very fine performance, more completely satisfying, if my memory is reliable, than an earlier one, given some three years ago in Cardiff, by the same orchestra and conductor.

Van Steen’s understanding and control of the symphony was remarkable, with its shifting patterns, its repeated motives and themes, its echoing (and neat avoidance!) of conventional symphonic expectations all integrated into a coherent whole. The work’s sense of form seems both organically fluid and tightly resolved; it is a work of paradoxes – it is unsurprising that its closing pages have been described by various commentators as “triumphant” and “all-conquering” and – by Sir Colin Davis – as “the closing of the coffin lid”. If I say that Van Steen avoided a simple commitment to a ‘meaning’ at the end of the work, it might sound like damning with faint praise or an accusation of a failure to make up his mind. I certainly don’t mean either of those things – my praise for this performance is intended to be some considerable distance from the faint. Rather, this was a performance which very successfully registered the fascinating, self-generating momentum of the musical materials from which the symphony is made, the musical seeds from which it audibly grows, the musical journey out and back which it makes, a performance which revelled in the sheer richness of the work’s design and bound its listeners to that design rather than to any simple ’emotional’ translation thereof. In doing this, van Steen drew some very fine playing from the orchestra, and left his listeners both exhilarated and, to a degree, exhausted by the intensity of what had been demanded from them and with which their attention had been rewarded.

After the interval, Isabelle Faust joined the orchestra for an outstanding performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto – providing a very different, but equally impressive and enjoyable musical experience. The least showy of soloists, with an attractively unaffected stage presence which communicates – as does her playing – a profound sense that she is there to draw attention to the music rather than to herself, Isabelle Faust’s interpretation of Brahms’s concerto was memorable for the absoluteness with which the solo violin was integrated into the larger orchestral texture of the work. That this effect was achieved so beautifully, without any loss of the soloist’s position in the foreground of the music also, obviously, speaks very forcefully of the sensitivity of Jac van Steen’s conducting. Isabelle Faust plays the so-called ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Stradivarius of 1704; what a beautiful sound it produced beneath her fingers and bow, even and eloquent right across its range, if not especially powerful. There is a crispness to Faust’s phrasing and tone which I find very attractive, but which some might find insufficiently ‘romantic’ in this work. My own sense was that it befitted the intimate sense of scale which characterised much in this performance, in which there was a stronger sense of musical conversation and poetry than of rhetoric or bombast (both of which one has encountered before now in inferior performances of this concerto).

In the first movement the ‘contrasts’ between the lyrical and the dramatic were resolved into a sense that the two were aspects of a single impulse, and Faust’s playing of the passages of double and triple-stopping always made musical sense, without the slightest tendency to mere self-display. The cadenza used was not the familiar one written by Joachim, but one prepared by Busoni, in which the soloist is accompanied by some striking timpani-rolls (well-handled by the consistently excellent Steve Barnard). I’m not sure that I would want this Busoni cadenza to replace that by Joachim, but it made an interesting and refreshing change. In the Adagio, Faust made clear the connection between the beautiful initial melody given to the oboe and the writing for violin which follows it, with her solo playing and the work of the orchestra’s woodwinds producing a quite enthralling account of this lovely movement. In the closing Allegro there was – as Brahms’s marking requires – plenty that was ‘giocoso’, most obviously in the use of gipsy figures; here and elsewhere, the manner of Faust seemed to bring out with particular clarity the way in which Brahms, in this concerto, reaches back beyond his romantic predecessors to echo aspects of the work of Beethoven and Mozart. Throughout this – and the two preceding movements – Faust’s subtly nuanced phrasing and fluid grace of line was a delight. Jac van Steen’s accompaniment was perfectly judged and the orchestra did all that was asked of it. The orchestra’s applause of the soloist appeared as genuine as that of the audience. The whole concert made a memorable close to the season.

Glyn Pursglove