Swiss Orchestra Brings Adams, Glass, Pärt to Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Adams, Glass, Pärt:  Matt Haimovitz (cello), Basel Symphony Orchestra / Dennis Russell Davies (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 19.4.2014 (PCG)

Pärt – These words… (2008)
Glass – Cello Concerto No 2 Naqoyqatsi (2012)
Adams – Harmonielehre (1985)


Many of the foreign orchestras who play in the international seasons at St David’s Hall seem to have difficulty in adjusting to the idiosyncratic acoustic of the auditorium; but there was not a hint of this problem here, where the opening bars of Arvo Pärt’s These words… displayed a resonance which many rivals find hard to achieve especially in the playing of the pizzicato strings. The orchestra have been touring Britain – and indeed gave the same programme a few days before in a live Radio 3 broadcast – but there was no sense of any staleness, and the long closing pages of the score were beautifully sustained.

Philip Glass’s Second Cello Concerto, based on his film score for Naqoyqatsi, was by comparison only intermittently impressive. The orchestration demonstrated conclusively that Glass’s minimalist techniques work at their best when there is plenty of instrumental colour, and when the orchestra were fully engaged there was more variety of rhythm and harmony too. But unfortunately, stripped of its original visual images, some of the music was really too long for its content; and the slow movements became positively soporific at times. The movement Old world, with its repetitive harp ostinato accompanying the solo cello, was very beautiful, but at the same time a particularly annoying example of this. But the performance was excellent, and Haimovitz and the orchestra produced a well-integrated and well-balanced sound throughout. The long-drawn coda seemed never to end.

After the interval, the opening of John Adams’s Harmonielehre demonstrated exactly the sort of energy that the Glass concerto had so often lacked, with the strings (reduced in number in the concerto) restored to full strength. Harmonielehre is of course a relatively familiar score, but at the same time one noted that the first movement demonstrates how much better Adams is than Glass in the creation of an evocative melodic line. The Basel strings excelled themselves here, although the first horn was more fallible and the piccolo was over-shrill in some of the fiendishly high passages Adams allocates to the instrument. The same problem was apparent in the second movement The Amfortas wound, but again the fault lies with the composer rather than the player; surely a solo violin would have sounded better in some of these passages? The Mahlerian angst of this movement, with what must surely be a direct reference to the agonised climax of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, is perhaps rather too easily resolved in the shimmering finale – even though the echoes of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe with the underlying falling Wagnerian chromatics are very beautiful in their own right. Slowly this atmosphere builds through sounds reminiscent of Adams’s Nixon in China to a heady climax, which only stops just when the music seems to have nowhere else to go. It brought the very sizeable audience cheering to their feet, and rightly so.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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