United Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Britten, Shostakovich: Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Lothar Koenigs (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 1.11.2013 (PCG)
Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis
Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem: Courtly Dances from Gloriana
Shostakovich – Symphony No 9
This concert was partly designed as a pendant to the Welsh National Opera’s season of Donizetti’s ‘Tudor Operas’ and was subtitled ‘Looking back, looking East.’ The programme opened with the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, which despite its Tudor origins might have seemed an odd choice for several reasons. The music itself lies a long way outside the normal operatic repertoire of the orchestra, and the brutally functional St David’s Hall totally lacks the atmosphere of Gloucester Cathedral for which the work was originally written – indeed the conductor acknowledged in his programme note that he “would love to perform this work in a cathedral.” Moreover the platform layout in the hall could not begin to recognise Vaughan Williams’s elaborate division of the strings with the second orchestra placed as a distance; here they were merely placed at the back of the stage. But in the event the piece came off well. There was plenty of rich string resonance, and the second orchestra managed to convey the sense of a distant echo despite their close position; and although there was no real sense of a cathedral atmosphere the sounds that were produced were glorious. Koenigs allowed the music to unfold at its own leisurely pace, never tempted to hustle it along to compensate for the lack of ecclesiastical atmosphere, and the results were most satisfying.
After a rather over-long pause to allow the platform to be rearranged, the violent opening of the Britten Sinfonia da Requiem with Patrick King lambasting the living daylights out of his timpani came as quite a shock. This was a raw-edged performance, exposing the nerve-ends of Britten’s iconoclastic score. The Dies irae was not taken at the helter-skelter pace that some modern interpreters (although not the composer himself) have adopted, but it still produced plenty of thrills with most of the notes in the right place – no mean feat in this whirlwind scherzo. Towards the end, as the music winds down into the final Requiem aeternam, Koenigs kept the pace up (it can sound somewhat mechanical if the slow rallentando is applied too literally) but this landed him with a rather fast speed for the closing movement which lacked the ideal element of repose.
After the interval the Gloriana Courtly Dances were generally less satisfactory. In the opera, Britten achieves variety by contrasting an onstage band with the orchestra in the pit, but this distinction is blurred in the concert arrangement (which also alters the order of the movements), and balances between the various sections of the orchestra suffered accordingly. The set of dances works well as the third movement of Britten’s own Gloriana suite framed by other music from the opera, but heard in isolation the ending with a brief reprise of the opening March sounds inconsequential and unconvincing, no match for the heavy reprise of Victor of Cadiz overwhelming the Coranto played by the stage band in the opera itself.
It is hard at this distance of time to perceive why Shostakovich’s generally light-hearted Ninth Symphony so offended the Soviet authorities to the extent that performances were banned for seven years after 1948. It is true that this jeu d’esprit certainly wasn’t the response to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that seems to have been expected of the composer, but otherwise it is difficult to see what was found to be so objectionable. Perhaps it was the sense of a cheeky schoolboy whistling to keep his spirits up in the dark which might just have penetrated their thick skulls; and the Largo which interrupts the scherzo is altogether more sinister as the monster is now actually in the room to such an extent that the whimpering bassoon (played with superb character here by Stephen Marsden) is frightened. Perhaps, too, the rejoicing at the end is just a little too frenetic to sound convincing. But in these happier days we do not need to be troubled by these considerations, and the WNO orchestra acquitted themselves with style and precision in the music.
It was a shame that the audience for this concert was so spare – it seemed as if the hall was only half full. One is somewhat at a loss to discover why the programme seemed to scare off listeners – there was nothing here to frighten the horses, and much to enjoy. Indeed those who were there certainly enjoyed themselves, and both conductor and orchestra were rightly given a barrage of cheers at the end.
Paul Corfield Godfrey