RPO Opens Swansea Festival With Fine Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven, Brahms, Bruch: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard, (conductor), Tasmin Little (violin), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 8.10.2011 (NR)

Beethoven, Egmont Overture
Bruch, Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor
Brahms, Symphony no. 4 in E minor

The 63rd Swansea Festival got off to a fine start with this programme. Thomas Dausgaard drove the Egmont overture along relentlessly, twisting his body so far over as almost to beseech more energy from his players. It was good to be reminded how those final bars never fail to astonish. Its first audiences must have felt they were in the presence of a force of wild nature of a kind that no previous music could have led them to anticipate.

Tasmin Little, who always communicates a great radiance in her playing and her stage persona, gave an attractively understated performance of the Bruch. It became in her persuasive hands a gently lyrical work with a few bombastic moments, as she sternly resisted the temptation to emote, which appears to affect so many players. Tempi were strict and melodies precisely centred; the beauty was respectfully given back to the score rather than taken from it to serve the violinist. If Bruch’s first audiences in 1866 had heard it played like this they would have had every reason to suppose that a great composer was about to mature. Somehow it didn’t happen, but it is nonetheless curious how so little of his output seems to have survived, and extraordinary to think he was still actively composing around the time of the First World War.

I wasn’t sure whether Dausgaard’s rather caffeinated style of conducting would suit Brahms’s Fourth. It’s fair to say it was stronger on sweep and momentum than on the last refinement of detail. Perhaps the beautiful emergence of the second slow movement tune in the cellos was slightly blurred, although when it returned in the violins it was very strong. Good stuff also from the flute in the Passacaglia – and spare a thought for the poor triangle player who has to sit immobile for seven-eighths of the symphony just to get everything perfect in the scherzo (which he did); the trombonists likewise for the last movement. It struck me in the end that Dausgaard had actually found something not just affirmative but positively genial in a work more often regarded as an outpouring of gloomy autumnal defiance. It was a fine culmination of a concert in which the musicians had found fresh things to say about all three of these very well-known pieces. The thunderous applause in the Brangwyn Hall seemed not to be merely in response to the performance, which fully deserved it, but to express a hungry yearning for the days not that long ago when the Swansea Festival was, after Edinburgh, the second largest provincial music festival in Britain, and when performances of this calibre were less rare.

Neil Reeve