Substitutes Nielsen, Svendsen and Jensen Greeted with Cheers

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Nielsen, Tchaikovsky, Svendsen:Leonard Elschenbroch (cello), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Eivind Gullberg Jensen (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 19.4.2014 (PCG)

Nielsen – Aladdin: Suite (1926)
Tchaikovsky –Rococo Variations, Op.33 (1876)
Svendsen – Symphony No 1 in D, Op.4 (1866)

The belated change of the conductor for this concert entailed some substantial alterations to the originally advertised programme. One was sorry to lose the Súk Asrael Symphony, but the Nielsen Aladdin Suite was a more than acceptable substitute for the scheduled Smetana Bartered Bride Overture (although the Radio 3 listings for the live broadcast relay continued to show the Smetana). There was plenty of panache in the playing of the BBC Welsh orchestra, but also some deliciously delicate touches especially in the second and third movements. The fifth movement Market place in Isfahan, with its four different tempi continuing simultaneously, was miraculously well integrated and co-ordinated, helped by some quick-change reorganisation of the orchestra to separate out the individual strands. (By the way, those who have an interest in the varying interpretations of the Aladdin theme – including the incidental music by composers as diverse as Hornemann and Ernest Tomlinson – may also be acquainted with the overture on the same subject by Mervyn Burtch, once included on a Marco Polo disc. Now eighty years old, he has received a commission for a work on Dylan Thomas to be broadcast on Radio 3 next week – definitely worth listening out for.)

The only item on the programme here which remained unchanged from that originally scheduled was the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations played with energy and enthusiasm by Leonard Elschenbroch. But what we heard was not the original Tchaikovsky score but the version as published in 1889 by William Fitzhagen, the original soloist, without the composer’s consent or approval. Fitzhagen made substantial alterations to the score, removing the final variations altogether, making alterations to others (not only in the solo part) and shuffling the other sections around. In an interview broadcast before the performance Elschenbroch defended this travesty of the original as a ‘collaboration’ between the composer and soloist, but to accept this argument must mean also that we accept that the mature Tchaikovsky didn’t know what he was doing. Since the original version as the composer wrote it has been available since 1941, the persistence in performance of the Fitzhagen bowdlerisation really can only be attributed to sheer force of habit. We would not accept nowadays the well-meaning interference of early interpreters in the performing versions of Bruckner symphonies, for example; why should we be prepared to tolerate it in Tchaikovsky? We had a momentary contact with authenticity in the encore, where Elschenbroch played the final movement of Hindemith’s sonata for solo cello, a work that he informed us his grandfather had played for the composer himself. It was an interesting choice; and, as I have said, he played very well indeed in the Tchaikovsky even if one may quarrel with the edition chosen.

I remarked at the beginning of this review that it was a pity to lose the Súk Asrael from the originally advertised programme, but in the event the Svendsen made a most enjoyable substitute. Grieg thought so highly of the symphony that he withdraw his own effort in the form (which has only emerged from obscurity in recent years) and one can understand why, although Svendsen’s first movement (complete with exposition repeat) is comparatively conventional. But the extended Andante, starting quietly, soon develops into music which anticipates the most heartfelt utterances of Bruckner and even Elgar. The following scherzo is a close cousin to Svendsen’s later four Norwegian Rhapsodies, with some delightfully reedy playing from the BBC NoW woodwinds. There were plenty of unexpected twists too in the finale, and a second subject melody that in its opening bars was surely recalled by Grieg when he wrote his own Solveig’s song. When this returned towards the end even the Franck-like doubling of the melody by trumpets, which could have sounded vulgar, was well integrated into the whole. It is often the case in rarely heard romantic repertoire that performances suffer from ill-balanced and under-enthusiastic playing. This was definitely not the case here, where the evident delight of the conductor and orchestra in the music brought well-deserved cheers of approval from the audience.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


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