Old and New Worlds Come Together in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Ives, Mozart, Dvořák: Christian Ihle Hadland (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Nicholas Collon (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 19.12.2012 (PCG)

IvesThree places in New England (1929 version, ed James Sinclair)
Mozart:  Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor, K466
Dvořák:  Symphony No 9 in E minor, Op.95 From the New World

This concert was constructed, so we were told, around the idea of American music; although of course Dvořák only wrote the New World Symphony in America and his treatment of the American tunes breathes the atmosphere of his native Bohemia, and one was unclear where the Mozart fitted into the concept. Nevertheless there is no real reason why concerts should have a unifying theme; and this was a very good concert indeed, recorded for later broadcast, where I would urge readers to look out for it when it appears on Radio 3 or BBC i-player.

I have had occasion in the past to complain of the BBC shoe-horning large-scale orchestral works into the small but resonant acoustic of the Hoddinott Hall, and one must observe that during the performance of Ives’s Three places in New England the intensity of the sound here approached (if it did not pass) the threshold of pain. But that is really OK in the context of this music, and the piece – given in the full orchestral version reconstructed from Ives’s revision of the score for chamber orchestra – was given an excellent performance. The work is still a relative rarity, but one would never have guessed it from the playing here. The opening of the first of the landscapes, The St Gaudens in Boston Common, lacked the ideal opalescent glow from the strings but served well to set off the woodwind, especially the beautifully sultry flute playing of Matthew Featherstone. Putnam’s Camp was appropriately brash, and kept together (as much as the composer intended, at any rate) in the multiple rhythms; although in the acoustic one was driven to reflect that what Ives intended as a picture of competing brass bands in the open air threatened at times to degenerate into mere noise. The Housatonic at Stockbridge restored peace with its dense string harmonies, although the rustling violin counterpoints could have been more clearly defined. The melody on strings in octaves had real nobility, not a word which one necessarily associates with the composer.

For the Mozart piano concerto the strings were reduced by one desk apiece, although the sound remained large in scale; but the woodwind came through nicely, and at least the sound had clarity and balance. Christian Ihle Hadland played confidently, and his use of sforzando produced a dramatically romantic view of the work, emphasising the parallels with Beethoven. In the opening tutti he played continuo along with the orchestra, which is presumably what Mozart would have done at the first performance; but I feel this is a mistake because it anticipates the solo entry later on. Although the slow movement was rather straightforward in delivery, this was welcome as an antidote to the Elvira Madigan associations that have become indelibly associated with the music. And the Hoddinott Hall is just the right size for Mozart, with its resonant glow bathing the score in a rich sauce. The finale again had plenty of Beethovenian fire and control, and Nicholas Collon was a sympathetic accompanist.

The performance of the Dvořák New World Symphony was something rather special. The conductor Nicholas Collon with his permed hairstyle bears (especially when seen from behind) an astonishing resemblance to the young Simon Rattle, not only in appearance but also in technique and manner; and he gave a fresh but intelligent interpretation of the perhaps over-familiar work. The opening bars were lean rather than warm, and this paved the way for a very dramatic reading of the first movement. Collon was prepared to treat the speeds elastically, but made the changes in tempo convincing. One was left wondering what he would do to make the exposition repeat more dramatic; but in the event the repeat was simply omitted, which made sense in the context but unbalances the movement.

In the slow movement the cor anglais playing the famous tune could have been more leisurely to advantage, and when the tune returned on the strings Collon did indeed slow down; the music then gathered momentum and the cor anglais was more intense in the repeat of the melody. The flute and oboe unison in the middle section was pure magic, and the passage for solo strings at the end of the movement was just about perfect. Collon’s treatment of the scherzo underlined unexpected parallels with Bruckner, only rather more light-hearted – but not of course with the very Bohemian trio section. One was interested to notice the prominence given to a bassoon counterpoint (echoed by the horn) which is usually obscured – one of the many original touches in this performance. The dramatic approach to the finale quite overcame the occasional feeling of ‘going through the motions’ in the passages where Dvořák repeats themes from the earlier movements, and the return of the ominous opening chords from the slow movement over thundering timpani was positively hair-raising. It is the mark of greatness in a conductor when they can bring out new facets in a score which is so familiar, and there were plenty of these moments in this performance; the finale was indeed one of the best interpretations of this movement that I have ever heard. The orchestra played superbly for him.


Paul Corfield Godfrey