Superb Playing of Martinů, Dvořák and Bartók in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Martinů, Dvořák, Bartók:  Liza Fertschmann (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Jac van Steen (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 21.3.2014 (PCG)


Martinů – Frescoes of Piero della Francesca
Dvořák – Violin Concerto
Bartók – Concerto for orchestra


This most interesting programme demonstrated the BBC National Orchestra of Wales on the peak of their current superb form, and it was a disappointment to find that the hall only appeared to be half full. In an introductory speech Jac van Steen congratulated those present on their “bravery” in being prepared to listen to Martinů; but in fact the composer has had a faithful following in Cardiff ever since Mackerras’ 1981 UK première for Welsh National Opera of The Greek Passion, the production in that season most eagerly requested for revival by audiences. However the Frescoes of Piero della Francesca is a score still far too seldom heard, and this performance made out an excellent case for its more frequent presentation. The eloquent strings on their present form brought all the richness to the music that it so urgently needs, paralleling their achievement on their recent recording of Bloch’s Schelomo – to which the first movement of the Martinů provides an obvious parallel in its depiction of the Queen of Sheba. This richness of tone demonstrated that the orchestra have the full measure of the acoustic of St David’s Hall, which so often defeats international visitors; and they were overwhelming in their delivery of the many exciting passages in the score.

 The performance by Liza Fertschmann of the Dvořák Violin Concerto (which she has recently recorded for Challenge Classics) brought a real sense of partnership with the orchestra which belied the fact that they had not previously worked together. The radiant string playing at the recapitulation in the slow movement was mesmeric; and the finale had plenty of sparkle as required, but even then there was plenty of light and shade as well, with details often obscured given their full due. The Violin Concerto is often regarded as a poor relation of the Dvořák Cello Concerto, but in a performance like this one felt that one had to ask why. The soloist did not perhaps have the fullest tone (although this made the interplay with the orchestra more effective), but she never forced or made an ugly sound, and there were many delightful touches of delicacy which breathed life into the music.

 After the interval the orchestra made a valiant stab at the showpiece Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, but the acoustic of St David’s Hall apparently caused some problems. I know from personal experience that it is often difficult on one side of the stage to hear what is happening on the other side (as can be testified by the evident uneasiness displayed by some visiting performers) and at the beginning of the concerto the performance sounded just slightly careful, lacking the ideal sense of devil-may-care ease that might have been achieved with more experience of the score. However during the third movement Elegia the beautiful viola melody had plenty of warmth, beautifully taken up by the violins; and after that the playing seemed to cohere with more confidence. Indeed the individual contributions throughout were uniformly excellent, and the players threw caution to the winds to exciting effect especially in the excoriating account of the whirlwind last movement. The performance as a whole made one realise what a difficult form the ‘concerto for orchestra’ is, and how few composers after Bartók have managed to make the form into something more than an orchestral showpiece. The audience at the end was justifiably transported, cheering the individual soloists with great enthusiasm.

 Paul Corfield Godfrey

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