Earnest Delight in Neuberger’s Bartók

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Bartók: Jean-Frédéric Neuburger (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Francois-Xavier Roth (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 22.2.2013 (NR)

Tchaikovsky, Fantasy-Overture ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Bartok, Piano Concerto no. 2
Tchaikovsky, Symphony no. 4 in F minor

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is an exceptionally fine outfit now – so well-oiled, well-balanced and reliable that it sometimes scarcely matters who conducts them, although Francois-Xavier Roth brings a special dynamic elegance to the mix. The brass in particular is going from strength to strength, and the Brangwyn Hall programme certainly brought this to the forefront. I can’t remember hearing the ‘call of fate’ in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony sound more thrillingly desolate, while in the third movement the muted trombones played with lovely delicacy against the rustic dance going on alongside them. Wonderful soft horns also near the close of the Romeo and Juliet overture, while the brass also dominates the opening movement of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto with raucous virtuosity.

The concerto was played by Jean-Frédéric Neuburger, one of the extraordinary rising generation who keep threatening to take piano playing onto a new level. He played with a kind of earnest delight. The Bartókis ferociously difficult without always being completely winning for the soloist, as the piano, especially in the opening movement, can hardly help being almost submerged at times in the ocean of winds. (There was a slight balance issue here which the recording engineers will no doubt resolve for the upcoming BBC broadcast.) Even amid the most violent percussive demonstrations there are moments of nostalgia for lyricism peeping through, and at the start of the second movement, where the strings enter for the first time, in magical, weirdly detached, floating pianissimo, the piano expresses awed amazement in simple, Middle-Eastern inflected phrases, turning more Javan as the timpani thunders. The players managed this beautifully. When the string passage returned it seemed to lose its other-worldliness and become more ominous and pointed – a powerful effect deliberately brushed away by the cheerful explosions of the finale.

On the other hand, I felt the slow opening of the Romeo and Juliet overture was perhaps a little less ominous than it might have been: there was sombre warmth rather than any sense of danger. The ‘fight’ music had great vigour and the big tune was as big as it should be. The Fourth Symphony was magnificent throughout. Who said you had to be Russian to play Russian music? Pizzicatos were absolutely precise at the lowest conceivable volume, melodies fully expressive, the race to the finishing line at the end brilliant and exhausting. I can’t wait to hear this performance again.

Neil Reeve