Late Start and Wagner Tubas Undermine Imaginative Bruckner/Messiaen Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bruckner, Messiaen:Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Lothar Koenigs (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 25.4.2014 (PCG)

Messiaen – L’Ascension
Bruckner – Symphony No 8


This concert, another in the imaginative WNO series constructed around various themes and including operas as well as orchestral music, revolved around the theme of ‘Faith’ in the same manner as their Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique in January had centred on the notion of ‘fallen women’. But an unfortunate lack of faith on the part of WNO management meant that when their principal oboist was taken ill on the day of the concert, the decision was taken to import a substitute from elsewhere rather then simply ask the second oboe player to step up to the mark.

That decision in itself would have been a matter for no more than marginal comment, had it not been for the fact that an announcement had to be made at the start of the concert that a delay of five minutes would be necessary to allow the replacement player to arrive. Twenty-five minutes later the same hapless individual was forced back on to the stage to say that this time the delay would really only be five minutes; and nearly fifteen minutes later the concert actually got under way, some forty minutes late. This meant that several members of the audience had to leave at the interval to catch their last trains and connections, and many others had their travel plans disrupted. It would have been a nice gesture at least for a further apology and explanation to have been forthcoming.

Under the circumstances the performance of Messiaen’s early L’Ascension had a perhaps understandable air of insecurity. In the opening movement the brass chording was imprecise, not quite rhythmically together, and the occasional split notes betrayed a sense of unease. The brass had recovered by the second movement, but throughout Koenig’s speeds erred on the side of caution and there was definite lack of warmth from the strings in the last movement, with the quiet playing and diminuendi exposing individual players. Altogether this performance had an impression of being at once too careful and not careful enough, not a desirable attribute in Messiaen.

After the interval Koenigs showed a more assured hand in Bruckner’s massive Eighth Symphony, given at full length in the Haas edition with passages restored that the composer had cut from his later revision (although this was not explained in the programme notes). But here we could really have done with the full weight of a Wagnerian string section – another five or six desks of violins would have helped to provide full definition in the many climaxes, which were sometimes dominated to an undesirable extent by the brass. And the internal brass balance was questionable, too, with trumpets overwhelming trombone themes and Wagner tubas smothering the remaining horns (the Wagner tubas are of course not really tubas, but are played by the fifth to eighth hornists). A really satisfying balance was not achieved until the closing bars of the first movement coda, when things finally coalesced.

In the scherzo, taken at a pleasant deliberate landler-like speed, everything came together in a fine fashion; and Koenigs’ fluid tempo for the Adagio kept the sense of evolving development throughout the movement, without the sense of languishment that can sometimes obtrude. What did however obtrude were again the Wagner tubas, bullishly forward in the balance in a way that surely Bruckner did not intend. In the finale Koenigs started out at a brisk pace, but unfortunately the momentum was not sustained and again the Wagner tubas made their presence felt in the wrong sort of way. As a result the lengthy movement tended to fall into a series of semi-independent segments which failed to cohere and make the coda, where all the themes of the symphony unite, into the inevitable culmination which it should appear to be.

The idea of this season’s WNO concerts given as part of the St David’s Hall ‘International Concert Series’ and linked in to operas in the company’s current repertoire is basically a good one, and has delivered some interesting sidelights on the works featured. But here the unfortunate circumstances served to undermine the effect of the performance as a whole. The audience, as so often this year, was miserably small and the hall was less than half full although the orchestra was rightly applauded enthusiastically.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

4 thoughts on “Late Start and Wagner Tubas Undermine Imaginative Bruckner/Messiaen Concert”

  1. Oh dear, it sounds like you should have stayed at home and listened to a recording of the Vienna Phil from the good old days. The concert would also have started on time, barring the late boiling of the kettle. What your review shows is that yes, the concert started late due to circumstances above and beyond, but fails to show the reader that the person who came in to play 1st oboe in a difficult programme, with NO REHEARSAL, sounded like he’d been with the orchestra all week. That was worth a paragraph of text, but instead you chose to complain about the management, how late the concert started, and have the temerity to suggest that you know better than the conductor and the players involved in the concert by suggesting an ‘unfortunate lack of faith’ regarding the Oboe situation.

    I’m 1st trumpet in the orchestra, and missed notes (‘splits’ is a term used in 4th section brass band adjudication) happen occasionally in live music, and as a brass player sometimes comes with the territory. As brass musicians though, we have to see past any blemishes and ask ourselves whether the missed not detracted from the overall effect. Generally the answer is no.

  2. As an audience member I wholeheartedly support Dean Wright’s comments. The late start was indeed unfortunate for everyone, not least the orchestra, but these things happen. As Dean says, the replacement player in question played superbly (despite a fraught journey to Cardiff which Mr. Godfrey chose not to explain). End of story. The Messiaen had a few problems, but this was hardly surprising after an unsettling start. Minor ‘slips’ happen to the best of them and should be ignored. The performance of the Bruckner was by any standards a towering achievement, by both orchestra and their highly acclaimed Music Director Lothar Koenigs. No, the WNO orchestra cannot compare with those of Vienna, Berlin and elsewhere, at least not in this (to them) unfamiliar repertoire. But it was a performance of which they can be proud, collectively and individually. Of course a few more desks of strings would be beneficial, but it becomes a cost issue when the orchestra is already considerably augmented by freelance professionals. From my seat in Tier Six balance sounded fine and the Wagner tubas did not obtrude in any way. Wagner wanted them heard in all thier glory surely! Getting the orchestra ‘out of the pit’ is essential to their growth and development and we should be grateful extremely to WNO, it’s Orchestra Circle and the Colwinston Trust for so generously supporting them. Long may they continue. Finally, huge praise Dean Wright himself. He played magnificently throughout this challenging and physically demanding programme but would be far too modest to “blow his own trumpet”

  3. Re Wagner tubas: I of course meant to say “Brucknet meant them to be heard in all their glory” – but I suppose so did Wagner, having invented the things in the first place!

  4. I am sorry to say that I have only just seen these comments, and hope that it is not impolite of me to reply so belatedly.

    I made no comment upon the ability of the replacement oboist, who indeed fitted into the ensemble without problems even given the lack of rehearsal. What I do however still query (with all necessary temerity) is why the 2nd oboist in the orchestra, who would have been present at rehearsals, and is clearly competent to play the part, wasn’t just promoted to the lead. Especially since this would have avoided the delays.

    Mr Furber refers to the player’s “fraught journey” to Cardiff which I “chose not to explain.” Well, I didn’t explain because the audience was not told about the travel problems he experienced. If we had been informed one might have been more sympathetic – my complaints focused on the lack of information we were provided with, and that misleading. And it did mean that people had to leave the concert early, which is always unfortunate quite apart from the disruption it causes.

    I have no wish to quarrel with Mr Wright about security or otherwise of individual brass notes in the Messiaen (especially after this length of time) but I am quite prepared to attribute this to nervous tension, which would have been quite understandable under the circumstances. But the chording of the brass was definitely not ideal especially during the first movement when the audience was still restive and unsettled – a feeling that almost certainly will have communicated itself to the players.

    I wholeheartedly agree that it is both useful and enjoyable for the WNO orchestra to get out of the pit on occasions, and I have reviewed previous performances with enjoyment and enthusiasm – their Symphonie Fantastique earlier this year was something quite special. I am not so sure that ‘slips’ should simply be ignored in a review, as Mr Furber suggests – but then a review is not meant to be simply an encomium for a particular performance. I certainly would not complain about a simple memory lapse on the part of a soloist, or indeed a note from the brass that was not the last word in accurate intonation, unless it seriously affected the enjoyment of the audience.


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