United Kingdom Ravel, Britten, Debussy, Schumann: Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Tim Thorpe (horn), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Christoph König (conductor,) Grand Theatre, Swansea, 2.5.2014 Theatre, Swansea, 2.5.2014
Ravel, Le Tombeau de Couperin
Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
Debussy, orch. Büsser, Petite Suite
Schumann, Symphony no. 1, op. 38, ‘Spring’
Another very enjoyable concert in the BBC NOW’s season at Swansea’s Grand Theatre – a more intimate, or to put it another way, a more compressed setting than the temporarily out-of-action Brangwyn Hall. The orchestra and its programming have adapted well, performing works for slightly smaller forces and avoiding anything involving a piano, which would push most of the other players into either the wings or the audience. The guest conductor for the night was Christoph König, remembered fondly by those who followed his performances with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra some years back, and their Welsh counterparts responded with some attractively crisp and energetic playing throughout.
The highlight was a performance by the tenor Benjamin Hulett, with Tim Thorpe, the BBC NOW’s principal horn, of Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Both brought real elegance as well as passionate commitment to a work which, as is perhaps not often enough pointed out, was written in 1943 after the composer’s return to England from America; the section called ‘Elegy’, a setting of Blake’s poem ‘The Sick Rose’, is for my money as potent a response to the war as any composer managed. The range of colours and textures in a work of such apparently bare orchestration is quite remarkable, and König found just the right balance to let them through. Owing to pardonable neglect I had not heard Hulett before, but I felt his voice was perfectly suited to Britten, light and muscular at once, and I’m keen to hear him sing Schubert.
Either side if this were two popular French works: Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, with its intriguing mix of Tulieries courtliness and misty shimmers from France’s far south-western coast, and Debussy’s charming Petite Suite for piano four hands, in Büsser’s arrangement. It’s a bugbear of mine that orchestras, as opposed to pianists, always seem to play this too fast, especially the second movement, ‘Cortège’, marked moderato but apparently all too often misread as allegro, with a consequent blurring of detail. This wasn’t entirely avoided on this occasion, although the final ‘Ballet’ was thankfully less hectic than usual.
Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony of 1841 must stand, with the piano concerto begun in the same year, as his two brightest works – perhaps his only truly bright works. Maybe what one is sensing is a deliberate orientation towards brightness when shadow is still seductively in the offing; brightness was not Schumann’s natural element in the way it may have been for, say, Dvorak. It’s striking for instance how the theme from the eighth section of Kreisleriana, composed three years earlier as something deeply haunted and mysterious, should be recycled in the symphony’s finale as carefree and jolly. The verve and freshness of the whole work was finely conveyed, reinforced indeed, by the smaller than usual orchestra.