Convincing Performance of Honegger’s Symphonie liturgique

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Honegger, Rachmaninov, Fauré: Yevgeny Sudbin* (piano), Elin Manahan Thomas** (soprano), Roderick Williams** (baritone), BBC National Chorus** and Orchestra of Wales, Thierry Fischer (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 24.1.2014 (PCG)

Honegger – Symphony No 3 (1946) ‘Liturgique’
Rachmaninov – Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini (1934)*
Fauré – Requiem, Op.48 (1900 version)**


It may be contended that orchestras of the first flight can be best judged by their success in music of the second rank. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is currently at the very top of their form, and here they succeeded in convincing one that Honegger’s Symphonie liturgique really is a masterpiece which has been undeservedly neglected over the years. A very full audience may have been attracted by the romantic expectations engendered by Rachmaninov and Fauré, but by way of a prelude they were here treated to an excoriating and blistering account of the symphony which raised the roof during the first movement Dies irae. Without being over-lush, the cellos bruised the senses with their finely tuned cantilena at the heart of the De profundis, which had a real sense of calm and beauty; and the final Dona nobis pacem march built to an absolutely shattering climax.

Yevgeny Sudbin gave a quirky but most engaging performance of the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, resisting the temptation to simply put his head down and beaver away at the torrents of notes. The sly glance that passed between him and the glockenspiel player at the back of the stage at one point spoke of a real sense of give-and-take between the soloist and orchestra which informed the whole performance. In the famous eighteenth variation the temptation to go all out for romantic lushness from the start was resisted, although with the final statement of the string melody the violins poured forth all the rich romantic tone that one could have wished.

After the interval, however, it is a shame to report that the evening (at least in the hall) went off the boil. All the ingredients were in place for a superlative performance of the Fauré Requiem, but in the event the whole did not cohere. In the first place Thierry Fischer, an expert interpreter of French music of this era, seemed to hurry the music a little in places, as during the Offertorium and Agnus Dei, where the final statement of the theme (after a pause before the restatement of “Requiem aeternam” which seemed to last for ages) even sounded slightly perfunctory. The adoption of the later and fuller orchestration of the score was perhaps inevitable in the hall, but in the event the sound of the divided violas and cellos, finely detailed, was just a little too resonant – at times smothering the quieter singing of the chorus (whose control of dynamics was exemplary) and even Roderick Williams during the Hostias. Elin Manahan Thomas started the Pie Jesu rather unsteadily, and one almost got the impression that she could not hear the organ clearly (which, given the idiosyncratic nature of the sound on the St David’s Hall stage, may well have been true) although the organ came across loud and clear in the auditorium with an effect that was in places all too matter-of-fact. The organ registration in the final In paradisum was particularly disturbing; it sounded almost like a bamboo flute, but towards the end the effect was uncomfortably like a barrel organ at a fairground, almost completely destroying the ethereal effect of the music.

However listening to the performance again the following morning on the BBC i-player (the concert was broadcast live), one received a completely different impression. Careful microphone placement completely rectified the questionable balances, and even the organ registration in the In paradisum sounded totally different and much less obtrusive. The reduced violin forces in the Sanctus still did not soar with the ideal sense of calm over the accompanying textures, and Elin Manahan Thomas still sounded uncomfortable in the floated lines of the Pie Jesu; but the rest of the performance made a very much better impression than it had done live in the hall. Readers who wish to judge for themselves are recommended to listen to the concert on the i-player during the next seven days; and they will certainly be able to enjoy a performance of the Honegger that rivalled the famous recording from the 1970s by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Paul Corfield Godfrey