Exciting Performances in Cardiff Compromised by the Hall’s Acoustics

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Elgar, Bruch, Rachmaninov:   Tasmin Little (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, David Atherton (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 12.11.2012 (PCG)

Elgar:  Cockaigne Overture, Op.40
Bruch:  Violin Concerto No 1 in G minor, Op.26
Rachmaninov:  Symphonic Dances, Op.29

When BBC Wales opened their new concert hall in the Millennium Centre they named it after the Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott, who had recently died. To some extent this made recompense for the shabby way Hoddinott himself was treated at the gala opening concert of the Millennium Centre, when Pendyrus Male Choir (who had commissioned several works from the composer, including Voyagers, his Four Welsh Folksongs, and the Hymnus ante somnum, first performed at the Aldeburgh Festival) ‘honoured’ his presence by singing instead Joseph Parry’s saccharine Victorian partsong,  Myfanwy, perhaps at the request of the BBC who were broadcasting the concert and didn’t want anything too modern in the programme. Hoddinott has nowadays been somewhat eclipsed by his contemporary William Mathias, whose generally more approachable music has found more of a public following; and it became apparent during this performance that the hall named after him also has its share of problems. Previously I have enjoyed concerts at this hall, which has a lively acoustic and shows off the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to good advantage, but the heavy romantic works on offer here showed up certain very real difficulties.

These became immediately apparent during the opening Elgar Cockaigne Overture. This was given a performance with a full measure of Elgarian vulgarity (better that than one without guts), but the placing of the heavy brass on a high-ish platform meant that the sound produced was almost painfully noisy in the relatively small hall. The trombone pedals and their ‘glissando fantastico’ came across loud and clear, and there was plenty of string body; but it sounded to me as though Elgar’s optional organ part was added in the closing passages (using an electronic organ, I think, since the Hoddinott Hall does not possess an organ) the saturated textures were altogether too much of a good thing.

Tasmin Little chose to play the Bruch concerto using a less powerful violin than her usual Stradivarius – in an introduction she said that she though this suited the ‘small hall’ better – but in places she came close to being overwhelmed by the rich sounds produced by the orchestra. There were some superb moments, notably the hushed textures as the first movement gave way to the second; but the hall – which was packed to overflowing – became increasingly hot as the performance progressed (was the air conditioning unable to cope?) and the tension tended to sag towards the end of the slow movement.  An early critic of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony once complained that after all the struggles to reach the summit all Strauss could present as a theme was the motif from the slow movement of Bruch’s Violin Concerto. Nowadays, with the Alpine Symphony established as a repertory work, the boot is rather on the other foot, and the listener can be tempted to reflect that Bruch’s use of the theme is much less impressive than Strauss’s. Indeed one became uncomfortably aware of a gnawing sense that Bruch was over-extending his material. As an encore Tasmin Little gave us what we were told was her first performance of Tchaikovsky’s Legend (not the choral piece, but one for violin and piano) in an orchestration by Glazunov, but by this stage the heat in the hall was playing havoc with the woodwind, who sounded over-emphatic in their endeavours to maintain pitch (which they managed to do).  After the interval quite a few of the audience left – possibly the Tasmin Little fan club? – and the hall temperature moderated somewhat.

The notoriously taciturn and morose Rachmaninov never left much in the way of clues about the emotional and psychological feelings that underlay his music. We know that he had such feelings, if only from the fact that following the disastrous first performance of his First Symphony he had a mental breakdown and destroyed the score. In his final orchestral work, the Symphonic Dances, he clearly had a point to make when he quoted from the destroyed symphony in the closing section of the first movement, but he never disclosed it. Similarly we are left to guess at the meaning that underpins the gorgeous melody for the saxophone in the same movement, an extravagance which is clearly significant, since the saxophone does not feature anywhere else in the score. The finale, a dance of death constructed largely upon the funereal Dies irae plainchant, which permeates so many of Rachmaninov’s works, obviously had a meaning for the composer, but we are left to speculate as to what this might have been.

In his final years Rachmaninov pestered his recording company RCA to allow him to record the Symphonic Dances; but the company declined his offer, paving the way for some thirty years of relative neglect. However had RCA agreed to a recording this would have helped to resolve a problem caused by an ambiguity in the otherwise precisely notated score; should the final stroke on the tam-tam be cut short, or be allowed to reverberate on beyond the orchestra’s last chord? One might have expected the composer to have indicated if he really wanted the latter extraordinary effect, but conductors such as Previn, Pletnev and Jansons have nevertheless opted for this second solution and the results are enthralling. However American conductors who actually knew Rachmaninov, such as Ormandy and Leinsdorf, cut the tam-tam short, and David Atherton did the same in this performance. This may be more correct, but I missed the thrill of the reverberating gong stroke dying away into silence at the end.

With an even larger orchestra than the Elgar, the sounds – although dramatic – were almost too much to cope with. The woodwind were rather too prominent and uninflected in their accompaniment to the saxophone solo, denying the soloist a real chance to expand or phrase emotionally; it was left to the violins, when they took over the melody with harp and piano accompaniment, to supply the romantic shortfall. The quotation from the First Symphony was not a distant memory, rather a very present statement; this might have been Rachmaninov’s intention, but it sounded too matter-of-fact and not mysterious enough. Similarly the muted trumpets at the beginning of the shadowy waltz which constitutes the second movement were challenging rather than sinister, and towards the end of the movement the brass almost threatened to overpower the string melody. However one was pleased to note that Atherton observed Rachmaninov’s instruction in the final movement for the horns to play with their bells pointing upwards – players tend to try and avoid this, since it can make the instruments difficult to keep in tune, but the effect is always visually arresting. And some of the gurgling passages for the bass clarinet were really fruity in just the right sort of way.

I was really looking forward to this concert – I love all the pieces – and I think my nagging sense of disappointment can be attributed to a great extent to the hall itself. The BBC really needs to consider whether they can squeeze such large-scale pieces into such a confined space, and the effect that this has upon the sheer physical comfort of a live audience. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 (and will be available on the BBC i-player for a further seven days). After returning home I listened to part of the BBC recording, and found the balance decidedly improved; one could clearly hear Tasmin Little in passages where in the hall she was almost submerged, and the heavy brass which was sometimes so painfully loud in the hall was set back in a more natural acoustic. This is really a case where those listening at home will have had a more pleasurable experience, because the performances themselves were very worthwhile and viscerally exciting – listening on the radio one can recognise this, and I would urge readers to take advantage of the recorded broadcast while it is available.


Paul Corfield Godfrey