United Kingdom Schubert, Bruch, Johann Strauss the Younger, Dvořák: Chloë Hanslip (violin), Czech National Symphony Orchestra, Libor Pešek (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 18.11.2013 (PCG)
Schubert – Unfinished Symphony in B minor, D759
Bruch – Violin Concerto No 1 in G minor, Op.26
Johann Strauss the Younger – Die Fledermaus: Overture (1874)
Dvořák – Symphony No 7 in D minor, Op.70
The highlight of this programme was Chloë Hanslip’s performance of the first Bruch Violin Concerto. This warhorse has become a staple of the repertory over the years, and all too often we are presented with a comfortable traversal of the score which is perfectly competent but fails to arouse the listener with any sense of how the music must have sounded when it was new and (dare one say) less hackneyed. That was emphatically not the case here; Hanslip brought bundles of fresh insight to her playing. She attacked the first movement with strength, abetted by Pešek’s brisk speeds, and that vigour served to set the idyllic second movement in proper context and clearly sparked a response from the orchestral strings in the lyrical climaxes. Even her dramatic passages of sotto voce carried beautifully over the orchestra, and she brought oodles of fun to the finale with some delightful by-play with the attentive Pešek. When I spoke to her during the interval she informed me that she had played the concerto over fifty times (“I stopped counting after that”) but one would never have believed that from her fresh and unjaded approach to the music.
The second half of the concert opened with the Strauss Fledermaus overture, a late substitution for Tales from the Vienna woods, and Pešek obtained a nicely witty and inflected approach from the players. The Dvořák performance was less happy, not so much because of the playing (the instrumentalists clearly know the work very well indeed) but because the balance between sections failed to clarify the composer’s sometimes tricky textures. In the Seventh Symphony the relatively inexperienced Dvořák was not always considerate in his demands, asking the violins to sustain elaborate parts against a barrage of wind tone; and sometimes the characterful winds overwhelmed the strings. One suspects that the orchestra was not familiar with the often idiosyncratic response of the acoustics of St David’s Hall, a reaction that was even more apparent in the Schubert Unfinished Symphony which opened the programme.
Here the trumpets in particular obtruded themselves at the expense of melodic lines in the strings and woodwind, and an especially cough-ridden audience were sometimes troublesome in the quieter passages, such as the very opening. The balance problems were not purely orchestral, either. Pešek omitted the repeat of the exposition in the first movement (possibly bearing in mind the length of the programme), which meant that the two remaining movements of this torso were unbalanced in dimensions with the second much longer than the first. By the way, the anonymous programme note speculated at some length on the reasons why Schubert left the symphony unfinished, but failed to mention the very convincing argument that the work was indeed finished and that the manuscript was dismembered by the composer to employ the finale in the Rosamunde music, leaving the loose leaves of the scherzo to be lost.
Following the Czech accents of the Dvořák it was a great surprise to be presented by an encore in the shape of Piazzolla’s Libertango. But Pešek, the orchestra and the audience all thoroughly enjoyed themselves and even the hacking coughers seemed to have been silenced. One should also mention the delightfully characterful wind playing throughout, with the vibrato of the oboe and clarinet sounding very authentically Czech and some decidedly Eastern European horns.
Paul Corfield Godfrey