Fine Performances from Williams, Søndergård and BBC NOW

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov, NielsenLlŷr Williams (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 12.4.2013 (PCG)

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 3
Nielsen: Symphony No 5

Llŷr Williams began his performance of the Rachmaninov Third in a very relaxed style, with careful expression which only began to pick up momentum when the cellos repeated the opening theme. There was an emphasis on delicacy rather than sheer bravura, and the first movement revealed a certain lack of firepower at climaxes, clearly intentional but somehow lacking excitement. Not until the stupendous cadenza did we get the feeling that the full challenge of this “Everest among piano concertos” was being accepted, and the impassioned strings in the slow movement brought a welcome access of emotional fire. All in all this was very musical performance of the score, carefully considered and conceived, but it was not until this point that one gathered the feeling that the sheer physical weight of the music had been fully faced. This led to a superb performance of the exciting finale, full of ecstatic fireworks, which brought the large audience cheering to its feet. As an encore Llŷr Williams played the Chopin Waltz in A minor, again a considered performance which relaxed the atmosphere nicely before the interval.

With the Nielsen symphony that followed there was emotional fire in plenty. Almost immediately we were made aware of beautiful phrasing of the first phrase from the violins, and later in the first movement there a conspicuously heartfelt delivery of the clarinet solo from Tim Lines. Nielsen famously asks the side drum in the passage leading to the return of the big theme to improvise ‘as if determined to stop the progress of the music.’ In some performances I have heard the player has interpreted this as carte blanche to employ a variety of techniques including rim shots and other more avant garde techniques. Here the drummer, isolated at the side of the stage, confined himself to styles that Nielsen would have recognised and worked up a real sense of steam in doing so, making the climax the cathartic experience it should be.

After the emotional cataclysm of the first movement there is always a possibility that the second movement of Nielsen’s Fifth may disintegrate into a series of individual episodes that fail to cohere. This did not happen here, where Søndergård set off at a cracking pace that served to unify the movement. He was rewarded by some superbly vigorous playing, especially from the strings in the devilish fugue section. When they get the bit between their teeth – and they certainly did in this performance – the strings of the BBC NOW can produce playing of superlative bite. Søndergård rightly gave the side drum and clarinet separate solo calls at the end of this marvellous performance.

Paul Corfield Godfrey