Ragtime to Rachmaninov: Chaslin in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gershwin, Adams, Rachmaninov: Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Frédéric Chaslin (piano, conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 27.1.2012 (GPu)

Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue
Adams, The Chairman Dances
Rachmaninov, Symphony No. 2

Conductor, pianist, composer and writer, Frédéric Chaslin is a multi-talented individual, and many facets of his ability (and his individuality) were on display in this concert in Cardiff with the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera. He was impressive and quirky as a shirt-sleeved pianist in the opening piece, Rhapsody in Blue. Principal clarinettist Leslie Craven opened the piece with a glissando that found the balance between ‘classical’ and ‘jazz’ idioms pretty well, and the brass of the orchestra distinguished themselves throughout with some incisive and disciplined playing. Chaslin showed himself to have a good understanding of jazz keyboard techniques with a nice ragtime touch and a confident use of syncopation, and in the last solo passage left behind the score in favour of what may well have been an improvised contribution and certainly incorporated jazz language that postdates Gershwin. He result was entertaining and witty. I wasn’t quite so convinced by some of Chaslin’s choices as conductor-from-the-piano. There were some rather fierce changes of tempo which fragmented the piece more than usual and robbed it of some of its sheer momentum. But the whole made for a lively and engaging opening.

Chaslin returned to the stage with a neatly-trimmed black jacket now covering the shirt, to conduct The Chairman Dances, another piece in which, of course, non-classical musical language is an important element. In his programme note Simon Rees had reminded us of how Gershwin said that the inspiration for the Rhapsody had come from travelling on trains with their “steely rhythms” and how they underlie the work’s “motoric rhythms”. The music of John Adams, of course, shows us how much more use of ‘motoric’ rhythms can be made. Chaslin’s conducting of this piece was notable for its dynamic control, for the subtle gradations of volume with which he characterised the work. I have heard slightly more seductive interpretations of the work, but this one fascinated by the precision and ceaseless vitality of its polyrhythms. The work of the percussion section was outstanding and that work was very well integrated into the shape and texture of the whole work by Chaslin’s conducting.

After the interval – Chaslin now wearing tails (I began to wish that there were more works on the programme, by other composers, to see whether he would choose to complement each piece of music with appropriate dress) – Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony was the sole work. (Interestingly, Rachmaninov was in the audience at the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue at the Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12th 1924). The journey from sombre self-absorption in the largo introduction to the first movement through to outgoing ebullience and triumph of the work’s close crosses a varied musical landscape in its hour of travel. Chaslin and the Orchestra generally maintained a strong sense of direction as they made that journey, a sense of organic forward impulse, even if (quite properly) they lingered to admire one or two of the landmarks along the way. The gradual emergence in the first movement of a note of determination, of psychological energy, was well handled and there was a powerful impact to the playing of the later climax. In the second movement scherzo the horn section acquitted itself well in the first theme and the allusions to the Dies Irae later in the movement brought some fine playing from the brass. In the famous string tune the orchestra lacked the bloom of the very greatest orchestras (but so, by definition, do most orchestras!) but the unsentimental intelligence with which it was conducted and played was pleasing. In the slow movement clarinettist Leslie Craven was called on for another major contribution and, if anything, his playing of the beautiful clarinet melody was even more impressive than his work in the earlier Rhapsody. Indeed this movement was particularly well played throughout, and Chaslin delineated clearly (but withoyt exaggeration) some of the ways in which it comments on and transforms materials from earlier in the work. The finale was played with an awareness in some of the moments of threat and disturbance, particularly in its earlier phases, so as to balance and give full meaning to the confidence of the work’s conclusion. Throughout this movement the orchestra played with real assurance, certainty and commitment. They and Chaslin were very much at one and one had the sense that each had found the experience of working together satisfying and stimulating.

Glyn Pursglove