Outstanding Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances from BBC NOW in Swansea

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Lalo, Rachmaninov: Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Olari Elts, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 14.1.12 (GPu)

Stravinsky: Symphony in Three Movements
Lalo: Cello Concerto in D minor
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances

A thread of what one might call geographical retrospect linked the three works which made up the programme of this enjoyable concert. One of the striking things was that the two pieces by expatriate Russian composers which opened and closed the evening should both, while being so different stylistically and emotionally, sound so very Russian – the lesson, it seems, being that while you can take the composer out of Russia you can’t take Russia out of the composer. Lalo was thoroughly French, but the influence of his Spanish ancestry and the inspiration of the Spanish violinist Sarasate, prompted a romantic nostalgia (not something either of the other two composers could be accused of) for a kind of imagined lost ‘homeland’.

Olari Elts was a relatively late replacement for the advertised Kristan Järvi (having been conductor of another concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in the Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff earlier in the week). He acquitted himself very well in conducting that was both lucid and, where appropriate, thoroughly passionate.

In Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements the opening movement had less sheer fire than in some performances, but had a compensating wit and acerbity, especially in the handling of the movement’s many contrasts of volume and tempo. The ‘savagery’ of the movement can, I think, be overemphasised (perhaps in knowledge of the specific nature of its origins in the cinema). Elts didn’t entirely neglect such ferocity, but his reading was more a matter of tension than savagery, and there was room to relish the sheer vivacity of many of the details in Stravinky’s orchestration. The opening of the central movement was taken relatively slowly, the woodwinds and the harp of Valerie Aldrich-Smith playing their roles to perfection (the work of pianist Catherine roe Williams was exemplary too). In the quicker music of the movement there was a pleasing grace one doesn’t always hear in performances of the work. The final movement had vigour and rigour without ever being quite as fiercely compelling as this finale can be.

The excellent Alban Gerhardt was the soloist in Lalo’s Cello Concerto. I have to confess that this is a work I have never found very rewarding; to my ears it has never seemed much more than salon music written for larger forces. Gerhardt was as persuasive an advocate for the music as I could readily expect to hear; even so, I wasn’t truly persuaded that the work as a whole had any great substance to it. Most of what is most attractive does, indeed, reside in the solo part, while much of the orchestral writing is unduly predictable. In the second movement in particular, Gerhardt played with a tender authority in the opening and with an engaging degree of playful energy in later phases of the movement. The andante introduction of the final movement found Gerhardt playing with particular expressiveness and the Spanish inflections in the writing (both for soloist and orchestra) worked well; the trumpets were on good form in the dancing rhythms of the later stages of the movement. I was, I’m afraid, still left feeling that this was amiable but lightweight music.

Though in many ways very accessible, there is nothing merely lightweight about the music of Rachmaninov’s wonderful Symphonic Dances, which brought the programme to a triumphant conclusion. For all the immediate attractiveness of its rhythms and melodies, this is a work of considerable profundity. A friend once answered the question “which is Shakespeare’s most interesting play?” by saying “The Tempest, but only when you have read all the others”. Just as The Tempest seems to have been written in the knowledge that it was the author’s last play, and is full of reworkings of motifs and characters from Shakespeare’s earlier work (at times it even feels like a commentary on some of those earlier works), so the SymphonicDances, Rachmaninov’s last work, possibly written in the knowledge that it would be such, seems to recapitulate and simultaneously to question and transform much of what the composer had previously written. Like TheTempest it is full of self-quotation of one kind or another; like The Tempest it seems, for all those similarities to what had gone before, to achieve a new kind of artistic synthesis. In the final dance the struggle between the Dies irae theme and the music in which Rachmaninov had expressed the Resurrection of Christ in his All Night Vigil / Vespers makes for one of the great movements in twentieth century music and reflects many of the dualities out of which the work is constructed – not just wrath and forgiveness, death and life, but body and spirit, passion and tenderness, Hell and Heaven. The triumph on which the work ends has been well earned, morally and musically.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Olari Elts gave a compelling, almost overwhelming performance of the work, thoroughly exciting as an aural experience and ethically searching. The beautiful melodic lines in the first dance were given their full value, but never felt like an end in themselves; the brass were tremendous at the opening of the second movement, one of the great concert waltzes, its worldliness more than once subverted by a sense of doubt, by an air of threatened elegance. The great final movement brought playing of disciplined ferocity from the orchestra, leaving an audience both exhilarated and exhausted. This was outstanding.

Glyn Pursglove