Season-Opener in Cardiff Celebrates Thirty Years of BBC National Chorus of Wales

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Poulenc, Shostakovich. Marita Sølberg (soprano), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 4.10.2013 (PCG)

 Poulenc – Gloria (1960)
Shostakovich – Symphony No 8 in C minor, Op.65 (1943)

Attending this concert on my birthday, I was delighted when the performance started with an impromptu delivery of Happy birthday to you from the orchestra. However I was slightly disappointed to realise that they were not delivering this in recognition of my compositional genius, but as a tribute to the thirtieth anniversary of the BBC National Chorus of Wales who were performing Poulenc’s Gloria in the first half of the programme. And they did it very well, although the short-breathed movements did not really allow the large body of singers to display themselves at full stretch. One was struck, not for the first time, by the manner in which Poulenc’s bitter-sweet melodies anticipate elements in the later works of Andrew Lloyd Webber, although the orchestra avoided any suspicion of schmalz. The highlight of the performance however was the singing of Norwegian soprano Marita Sølberg, whose beautifully creamy tone, fined down as necessary, avoided any hint of French acidity and floated her heavenly phrases in the ‘Domine Deus’ on an etiolated whisper of sound.

Thomas Søndergård had led the orchestra in a stunning Proms performance of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony earlier this year, and now moved back to the same composer’s earlier wartime symphony with its more menacing tone. At the beginning the playing of the strings had all the body and force that the BBC Welsh strings are producing so magnificently at present, and the first movement built to a stunningly dramatic climax; after which Sarah-Jane Porsmogue delivered the lengthy cor anglais solo with heart-breaking feeling, like a depressed Swan of Tuonela. The second movement was delivered at Shostakovich’s marked Allegretto rather than the headlong rush we sometimes hear, but in the extended sequence of three linked final movements the performance seemed to go slightly off the boil. It began promisingly with a vicious rendering of the Allegro non troppo, but the succeeding passacaglia, taken very slowly even given Shostakovich’s marking of Largo, seemed to go on rather too long for its content at this speed. I was once told by Alan Bush that Shostakovich had claimed to him that he never revised any of his scores once they were written down on paper – although I am not sure that the claim is strictly true. However, the slow development of the passacaglia theme, here laid out in painstaking detail, almost had a hint of the composer running on auto-pilot. When the final Allegretto movement arrived, it did not seem to be positive enough to balance what had gone before, and even the return of the ear-splitting climax from the first movement seemed oddly unmotivated. A rather more flowing tempo might have helped to provide a more completely satisfying conclusion. As it was Søndergård took some ten minutes longer over the symphony that Mravinsky on his pioneering recording; and Mravinsky after all had given the first performance of the symphony under Shostakovich’s supervision. Nevertheless the orchestral playing was faultless and fully committed to Søndergård’s vision of the work, and those who missed the live relay on this concert on Radio 3 can still catch up with it on BBC i-player for the next week.

Paul Corfield Godfrey