United 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