Three Musical Reflections on Napoleon from Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg, BeethovenDavid Soar (narrator), David Adams, Heather Badke-Hohmann (violins), Philip Heyman (violin), Rosie Biss (cello), James Southall (piano), Community Choir, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Lothar Koenigs (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 27.4.2012 (GPu)

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
Schoenberg: Ode to Napoleon
Beethoven: Symphony No.3

The bi-centenary of Napoleon’s disastrous march on Moscow provided the occasion for an interesting, and largely satisfying, programme of ‘Napoleonic’ music (even if Beethoven tore the name of Napoleon from the score of the ‘Eroica’.

Adam Zamoyski’s classic book on Napoleon’s Russian adventure (1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow, 2004) begins its Introductory Note with the statement that “Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 was one of the most dramatic episodes in European history, an event of epic proportions, etched deeply in the popular imagination”. The last phrase might be applied as readily to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture which provided an obvious (perhaps unavoidable) starting point for a programme devised along such lines as these. Though Tchaikovsky’s overture may not be “epic” in length, it has, tonally, something of epic quality to it. Too often conductors reduce it to mere bombast, an assemblage of effects without much underlying logic. Forget about its original context, forget about what the whole experience meant to the Russian soul, and the work can become no more than an (enjoyable) orchestral showpiece. But remembering that the work was originally written to commemorate the building of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, on the 25th anniversary of Tsar Alexander II’s coronation and the ways in which it affirms, at quite a deep level, the nature of Russian identity becomes clearer.

What we heard in Cardiff was a long way from mere bombast; ‘The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E Flat Major’ (Op.49), to give it its full title, was genuinely moving, genuinely affirmative. The beautifully blended and hushed singing of the choir in the opening Hymn, was convincingly in the mode of prayer, a prayer for God’s protection to be extended to the Russian people. WNO’s Chorus Master Stephen Harris and Stephen Wood, responsible for the preparation of the Community Choir, made up of amateur singers from across South and West Wales, deserve the highest praise for their work. Lothar Koenig’s reading of the Overture stressed its coherence, brought out the way in which its programme has an emotional as well as a narrative structure. Well-paced and resisting the temptation to force the excitement too early, this was a satisfying performance which made more of a case for the work than many much flashier interpretations have done.

Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte was written in 1942 – and the date suggests that he had a later dictator in mind too. It is a setting of Byron’s poem for piano, string quartet and reciter (the version for piano, string orchestra and reciter followed in 1944). Byron’s poem was a response to Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814 and is a complex piece, which marks both the specific ‘fall’ which the abdication represented and the other earlier ‘fall’ by which Napoleon had ceased to be the young republican liberator and crowned himself Emperor. The text is quite dense and it was greatly to the advantage of this performance that David Soar’s delivery should have been so strikingly clear of diction; no doubt the fact that he is also an accomplished singer did much to ensure that his delivery of the text responded to its instrumental accompaniment with precision and a good sense of rhythm. The work of the chamber ensemble was exemplary and, with Soar, brought out the many different ways in which the instrumental writing relates to the text – sometimes mimetically, sometimes ironically; at times simultaneous commentary, at times offering comment, retrospectively on what the reciter has just said. Elsewhere the instrumental writing neatly introduces the next phase of the text; at others it seems to continue blithely along its own path with no very obvious or explicit connection to the spoken words. While this is by no means one of Schoenberg’s greatest works, it is worth the hearing and, I am inclined to think, works better in the original chamber version than in the later orchestral version.

The evening closed with a lithe and intelligent performance of the ‘Eroica’, with a scaled down orchestra. Lothar Koenigs brought to the first movement considerable clarity of exposition and much well-shaped phrasing, though the development was less dramatic than one might have liked; there was a drop in tension in the middle of the movement. The outer sections of the slow movement – the funeral march proper – were especially moving, nowhere more than in the return of this material, the final pages of the movement being utterly spellbinding. Earlier the second subject was perhaps not as emotionally differentiated from what surrounded it as it is in the very finest performances of the symphony. The contrasting vivacity of the scherzo was properly striking, the reading rhythmically insistent without crudity, the sense of secular jubilation a powerful counterpoise to the ‘graveyard’ music of the adagio. The horns were attractively rural in the trio. The complex form of the final movement  – with its elements of theme and variation, rondo and passacaglia – was negotiated with certainty of purpose and a strong sense of onward movement and the whole ended convincingly in a coda of well-earned affirmation. While I wouldn’t want to claim that this was an exceptional performance of the ‘Eroica’, it was certainly an accomplished one, in which assured orchestral playing was at the service of a good conductor’s insights. Not for the first time I left the hall feeling, firstly, that Lothar Koenigs’ has a real knack for programming an interesting concert and, secondly, that South Wales is very fortunate to have two professional orchestras as good as the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

Glyn Pursglove