Exceptionally Excellent Performances of Beethoven and Britten

Beethoven, Britten: Paul Lewis (piano), Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (contralto), Andrew Kennedy (tenor), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales with Cardiff Polyphonic Choir and children’s choruses from Brecon Cathedral, Cardiff Metropolitan Cathedral School, Llandaff Cathedral and Scholars, St David’s Cathedral / David Atherton. (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 25.1.2013 (PCG)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 5 Emperor
Britten: Spring Symphony

The heavy snow which has been afflicting South Wales for the past week – and prevented my attendance at a concert last week with a most interesting programme including songs by Alma Mahler and Zemlinsky – did not deter a near-capacity audience from this BBC concert, which was also broadcast live on Radio 3. Those who had struggled to get to the hall were rewarded with two performances of quite exceptional excellence.

Paul Lewis has played the Emperor Concerto a goodly number of times, but there was not the slightest hint of routine about his performance. He responded with lively enthusiasm to all of Beethoven’s nuances, and the orchestra under Atherton did not let the side down. This was a large-scale performance and the second movement was taken more slowly than would meet favour among the authenticists; but the concerto can well withstand a more obviously romantic treatment rather than a purely classical approach, and in all this was a performance which left this critic with absolutely nothing critical to say – a rare event indeed.

Britten himself recorded his Spring Symphony in 1961 with Covent Garden forces, and this performance given in celebration of his centenary had nothing to fear with the comparison. In the first place the massed choirs showed much greater familiarity with the music than Britten’s smaller Covent Garden chorus, producing ringing tone in their declaration Shine out! This is a work which positively benefits from a large-scale performance, but the last time I heard it live was in a Three Choirs performance in Hereford some thirty years ago when the cathedral acoustics played havoc with Britten’s generally careful balances between chorus, soloists and orchestra. Here, in the more analytical and sometimes intractable acoustic of St David’s Hall, great care had obviously been taken to get the balances exactly right.

There was only one point when one could have wished for more body of sound from the children’s choirs culled from cathedrals across South Wales. This was in their triumphant entry with Sumer is icumen in in the final movement, where they were somewhat drowned out by the accompanying horns. But this miscalculation is the composer’s – in his 1961 recording they are clearly assisted by microphone placement – and the children’s choirs were perfectly balanced and audible elsewhere.

The soloists too were a well-balanced and excellent team. The personable Andrew Kennedy, one of the very best of current British tenors, immediately arrested attention in The merry cuckoo, where the accompaniment for three trumpets can easily overwhelm a smaller voice. Jennifer Johnston in Out on the lawn did not entirely erase memories of Janet Baker (who could?), but her resonant tones evoked the sound of Kathleen Ferrier for whom the work was originally written. The pregnant Elizabeth Atherton had the least to do of the three soloists, but she was properly perky as the “driving boy” and raised wry smiles with her impersonations of bird calls in Spring, the sweet spring. Diction was not always of the clearest, but the words were provided in the programme.

David Atherton has a long-standing and deserved reputation as an expert interpreter of Britten’s music, and clearly thoroughly enjoyed himself in this generally good-natured work, inspiring all his massed performers to great heights. The cowhorn player in the final movement was given a solo call by the conductor, and received the loudest cheers of all – which was not really fair to the rest of the performers.

The concert is available on the BBC i-player for the next seven days and is definitely to be recommended for any who did not hear it live. The recorded balances (backward Sumer is icumen in and all) faithfully reflect what the privileged audience heard in the hall.

Paul Corfield Godfrey