United Kingdom Liszt, Rózsa, Dvořák: Lawrence Power (viola), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Anu Tali (conductor), Grand Theatre, Swansea, 31.1.2014 (NS)
Mikós Rózsa: Viola Concerto
Dvořák: Symphony no. 9 in E minor, ‘From the New World’
The BBCNOW’s Swansea season this year is being held at the Grand Theatre, while the Brangwyn Hall undergoes refurbishment. On the strength of this concert it looks like being a popular and intriguing move. We are well used to hearing the opera orchestra from the pit at this venue, but not from the actual stage, and while the acoustic was as clean as ever, there were some small but noticeable consequences of the rather cramped space available to the players, principally that the brass, double basses and tympani were quite far back, so that the bottom half of the sound was often curiously light and muted. In some ways this seemed to suit the Estonian conductor Anu Tali, her podium manner being what I think I would call studiously passionate. In both Liszt’s Prometheus and Dvořák’s New World Symphony she drew out performances of great clarity, communicative engagement, and intelligent attention to detail – in the latter work sometimes with a jolt to the ear, as with the pointed, dumky-like ritardando she slipped in to the violins’ reprise of the first-movement flute theme. What was perhaps missing was that extra ounce of force, especially at the openings of both works. In the Dvořák in particular I never quite felt the sense of rapturous abandonment which underpins both his discoveries of the new and his memories of the old world. This is a very minor reservation, though; the quiet passages were beautifully handled and the complex ones negotiated effortlessly.
Whenever the viola as a solo instrument is discussed, lament invariably goes up about the paucity of the repertoire. It seems to me rather that there are plenty of interesting works, but they’re hardly ever played. When did anyone last hear the Rubbra concerto, or the Martinu, or either of the two by Milhaud? So it was good that Miklós Rózsa’s concerto had a rare outing. It was composed in 1979 for Pinchas Zukerman, and it makes telling use of the instrument’s low register and the grainy conversations it is able to have with other sections of the orchestra. The opening movement was chilly and searching, the scherzo energetic and good-humoured. Only in the slow movement did I sense the more programmatic side of the composer’s output coming forward, in big-picture climaxes and long-shot fade outs. There were plenty of interesting things going on, but it wasn’t a work whose centre I could readily locate. This was probably my fault, and certainly not the fault of Lawrence Power, whose taste, intelligence and phenomenal technical command kept him well abreast of the music’s shifting, slightly uncertain character.