Cardiff celebrates Paul Sacher’s Extraordinary Commissioning Legacy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Martin, Lutosławski, Stravinsky, Honegger: Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord), Catrin Finch (harp), Lucas Macías Navarro (oboe), Louis Schwizgebel (piano) BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thierry Fischer (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 16.3.2012 (GPu)

Martin: Petite symphonie concertante, Op.54
i: Double Concerto
: Concerto in D ‘Basle
: Symphony No. 4 ‘Deliciae basilinesis’

The Department of Music in Cardiff University and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales have come together to organise a series of events celebrating the extraordinary legacy of Paul Sacher (1906-99), the Swiss businessman and conductor who commissioned more than 200 works by his contemporaries, works by, amongst others (and I here I quote from the programme of this concert) ‘Bartók, Berio, Birtwistle, Boulez, Britten, Carter, Dutilleux, Henze, Hindemith, Honegger, Ibert, Krenek, Lutosławski, Malipiero, Martin, Martinů, Strauss, Stravinsky and Tippett’. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is playing six concerts in the series (of which this was the second). The weekend of March 16th-17th March also saw a conference at the University, under the title ‘Musicology at the Paul Sacher Foundation: New Directions in Source Study’. Sacher certainly deserves such a tribute – to the list of his achievements one might add the founding of the Basel Chamber Orchestra in 1926, of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in 1933, of the Collegium Musicum in Zurich in 1941 and, back in Basel, of the Paul Sacher Foundation, an archive of scores and manuscripts of the first order. Astonishing!

The four works heard in this concert were all Sacher commissions. Martin’s Petite symphonie concertante (for harp, harpsichord, piano and two string orchestras) was the second of five works Sacher commissioned from his fellow Swiss, and it was Sacher who conducted the first performance in Zurich on 17th May 1946. The work is essentially neo-classical (or perhaps one should say neo-baroque) in structure, in which the three soloists, harpist, harpsichordist and pianist, and the divided strings function in a manner analogous to the concertos of Bach. The musical language, on the other hand, is in no way neo-classical or baroque, with some striking asperities and some folk elements too. The particular combination of solo instruments inevitably creates some problems of balance, though Martin’s scoring takes account of this and Thierry Fischer’s conducting did much to avoid real difficulties. The symmetrical patterns of the work are clear, its alternations of the spiky and the gentle, of the patterned shifting of solo responsibilities, each soloist taking his or her turns in the foreground of the music, supported by the others. The constant transitions in the centre of gravity / focus of attention are always intriguing and all three soloists (along with Fischer’s direction of the orchestra) made their contributions very effectively to a persuasive performance that made a good case for the work, a work that has energy and charm and more than a little intellectual substance, a work which is, quite without bombast or indulgence, a master class in subtle orchestral effects.

Lutosławski’s Double Concerto (for oboe, harp and chamber orchestra) was a long time in the writing – it was begun in the 1970s but didn’t finally get its first performance (conducted by Sacher) with the Collegium Musicum in Lucerne until 24th August 1980, with Heinz Holliger and his wife Ursula as the soloists. Written for twelve strings and a percussion section, the Concerto’s first movement initially alternates furious writing for the strings with intricate duos between the soloists. The strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales played with fire and precision, as they did throughout. The dialogue between the two soloists eventually becomes relatively one-sided, as the very demanding writing for oboe comes to dominate. The young Spanish oboist Lucas Macías Navarro demonstrated outstanding breath control and a fine sense of phrase, while Catrin Finch’s contributions were always lucid and fully complementary to all that was otherwise going on in the work, her playing (along with that of Navarro) being especially eloquent in the central slow movement, in the ‘dolente’ marking of which both found some real poetry. The mildly humorous march in the third movement (marked ‘Marciale e grotesco’) worked well and overall there was plenty to relish in Lutosławski’s inventive sonorities.

Stravinsky’s ‘Basle’ Concerto in D for string orchestra was a Sacher commission in 1945 and was premiered by the Basel Chamber Orchestra (with Sacher conducting, naturally enough) in Basel on the 21st (some records say the 27th) of January 1947. It is a miniature masterpiece of its kind, well characterised by Stephen Walsh in his programme note as ‘a neat hybrid of three-movement concerto da camera, classical divertimento, and pure Stravinskian rhythmic and motivic study’. The opening allegro was played with the necessary airy crispness and rhythmic insistence and Fischer’s sense of orchestral balance was impressively well judged. The central movement (‘Arioso: Andantino’) had a delightful lilt to it, like a nostalgic memory of the ballet music of Tchaikovsky, filtered through a modern sensibility, and the whole movement was clearly relished by the orchestra. There is more anxiety to the closing movement, with its shifting tonality and motoric rhythms. It is a work we ought to hear more often in the concert hall, especially when played as well as it was on this occasion.

With more than 200 commissions to his credit, Sacher’s luck couldn’t always be of the highest, I suppose. I wouldn’t myself regard Honegger’s Fourth Symphony as one of Sacher’s successes. Let me hasten to add that I say that I say this as one who admires a good deal of Honegger’s music – works like the Second Symphony (also commissioned by Sacher), the third and fifth Symphonies, the tone poems and Le roi David, as well as his three interesting string quartets. The Fourth Symphony was commissioned to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Basel Chamber Orchestra and was first performed in the very same concert as the Stravinsky concerto (played immediately before it in this Cardiff concert). The aphoristic concision of the Stravinksy (all twelve minutes of it) must have sat oddly by the side of this over-long work by Honegger. It contains some pleasant and attractive music, but considered as a symphony it is seriously deficient in drama, in any musical argument of real substance, in any sense of a struggle resolved or a journey completed. Neither the range of mood or of musical material is finally sufficient to sustain intensity across the length of its three movements. It got a performance from the scaled down BBC National Orchestra of Wales (the work uses only two horns, two clarinets, two flutes, one bassoon, one oboe and one trumpet alongside the strings and percussion) which was skilful and committed. If there was a lack of fire, of symphonic contrast and argument, the fault for that lay elsewhere.

Glyn Pursglove