Thierry Fischer Bids Cardiff a First Farewell Aided by Mozart and Strauss

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Strauss: Angela Hewitt (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thierry Fischer (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 15.6.2012 (GPu)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K 482
Strauss: An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64

This was Thierry Fischer’s last concert in St. David’s Hall as Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. There are other engagements to follow – in the Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff, in Swansea and on a tour in China with the Orchestra, but there was a sense of the valedictory about the occasion, for which Fischer had programmed two startlingly contrasting works, both of which he conducted with characteristic understanding and a sense of idiom.

Angela Hewitt was a charismatic soloist in the Mozart concerto, the accents of the opening allegro articulated crisply in a reading which communicated all of the inventiveness of the writing, full as it is of ideas which Mozart can afford to leave undeveloped, ideas which would have served a lesser composer as the basis for a whole new work. Hewitt’s keyboard manner has an unforced theatricality which communicates her joy in the music and which, at times, seems almost to alert the audience to structural features they might have overlooked. She played a cadenza of her own, and very good it was too. But this isn’t a concerto that is only about the writing for piano. Indeed, amongst all of Mozart’s piano concertos this contains some of the most remarkable music for the winds; duets for horn and bassoon, and for the clarinets (for which Mozart was writing for the first time in a concerto) are among the particular pleasures of this first movement indeed. In the poignant andante, in which Angela Hewitt’s playing had a compelling concentration and expressiveness, the winds get even more time at the front of the music. This is particularly evident in the trans-generic episode which involves what is virtually a miniature wind serenade (of which of course Mozart was a master) with soloist and the rest of the orchestra silent – a remarkable and beautiful invention, very well played by the woodwinds of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. With the advantage of hindsight there is no great surprise in the fact that the Viennese audience at the first performance of this concerto demanded an immediate encore; the formal inventiveness of the movement goes hand-in-hand with an emotional poignancy that captures the note of lamentation without the slightest self-indulgence, not least on that variation on the initial theme given to flute and bassoon accompanied by the strings. The final allegro brings together disparate realms of experience. The hunt is evoked (but it is surely a ‘pretend’ hunt, not the real thing) at the beginning of the movement (just as the fanfare-like motifs that open the first movement have only the stage-military about them), only to be succeeded by a positively courtly minuet; and, again, there is an allusion to the wind serenade. The whole, in its fusion of indoors and outdoors, of the personally subjective and the socially objective, does what Mozart at his greatest does so perfectly – reconciles seeming opposites in a greater and more gratifying unity. The playing of Hewitt and orchestra alike was splendid in this movement, Thierry Ficher’s control of balance and sectional interplay (even, one might say, of generic interplay) excellent. This concerto isn’t played as frequently as some of its fellows; a performance as good as this made one regret that fact.

Angela Hewitt then treated us to a delightful solo encore, Wilhelm Kempff’s romantic arrangement of the G minor Siciliano from Bach’s Flute Sonata in E flat, BWV1031, a piece she recorded some ten years ago on a CD from Hyperion – pure delight, limpid and eloquent.

The Strauss could hardly have been more of a contrast with what had preceded it. I ought to put my cards on the table and confess that this is a work I have never really been able to get on with. The performance it got was of a high standard, the orchestra playing with conviction, no little skill – and considerable stamina! It is clearly a work that Fischer very much believes in and his reading of it was as amongst the best I have heard. But, even so, my scepticism about the work remains – and the juxtaposition with that perfect Mozart concerto didn’t do much to help its cause, for me. Where Mozart does so much with so relatively little, Strauss does so relatively little with so much. The quantity of musical picture painting in the work seems to me to get in the way of hearing and understanding the work’s larger philosophical and psychological patterns; the often over-literal (or so it seems to me) details (all those cowbells and bleating sheep) distract from, and to a degree trivialise the work’s larger patterns of thought and feeling.

For various reasons I won’t be able to hear Thierry Fischer’s season-closing concerts in the Hoddinitt Hall and the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea. So let me take this chance to praise some of the quite splendid work he has done during his six years as the Orchestra’s Principal Conductor. Amongst much else, performances firmly fixed in my own memory include a Berlioz cycle (La Damnation de Faust, Roméo et Juliette, L’Enfance du Christ); Messiaen’s L’Ascension and The Turangalîla Symphony (in his very first concert as Principal Conductor); Dutilleux’s Second Symphony; the chance to hear assured and idiomatic performances of music by some of his fellow Swiss – Arthur Honegger, Frank Martin and Heinz Holliger; many excellent contributions in support of a visiting soloist – I think particularly of a performance of the Berg Violin Concerto with Vivian Hanger and the Sibelius concerto with Baiba Skride. As well as some informedly adventurous exploration of the repertoire, Fischer has conducted canonical works – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – with consistent intelligence and sympathy. He will certainly be missed, though all orchestras (and perhaps all conductors) need to move on after a while. Fischer, I’m sure, will continue his career very successfully and the BBC National orchestra of Wales can expect to benefit from the different interest and input of the man who will replace him, Thomas Søndergård.

Glyn Pursglove