United Kingdom Bruch, Tchaikovsky, Bartók: Robert Plane (clarinet), Lise Berthaud (viola), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 3 June 2014 (PCG)
Bartók – Dance Suite (1923)
Bruch – Double Concerto for clarinet and viola in E minor, Op.88 (1911)
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No 2 in C minor, Op.17 ‘Little Russian’ (revised version, 1880)
I have never managed to resolve precisely why Bruch has fallen into the category of ‘one-hit wonders’ with only his First Violin Concerto maintaining a firm place in the repertoire. Occasionally one encounters the Second Violin Concerto or the Scottish Fantasy, andClassic FM sometimes features one movement or other from one of his three symphonies; but the neglect of his other works seems surprising, since they are not noticeably deficient in either interest or enjoyment. That is particularly true of his Double Concerto for clarinet and viola, which seems to suffer obscurity purely on account of its unusual combination of soloists. It was therefore particularly gratifying to encounter the work in this concert. The balance between Robert Plane and Lise Berthaud favoured the former in some passages, but insofar as that is the nature of the two instruments it was clearly what Bruch desired (the clarinet part was written for his own son to perform). The work has a tendency to meander lyrically, and the orchestra does not have a great deal to do, but Søndergård made sure that what they did made its mark.
The concert had begun with a performance of Bartók’s Dance Suite that was brimming over with character, rhythmically clear and gently lyrical by turns; and the players followed Søndergård through every twist and turn of the quirkily disjointed music. In the resonant acoustic of the Hoddinott Hall the individual players showed more composure than they had been able to achieve under Jac van Steen last March in the drier St David’s Hall when performing the Concerto for orchestra, and one noted that Søndergård sought (and got) a rustic style from the woodwind players which fitted the music ideally.
The same characterful playing was evident in Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony which followed the interval, a performance which bustled with life. It is interesting to note in this essentially light-hearted work anticipations of techniques that the composer was later to employ to more serious intent in his final three symphonies – consecutive vicious down-bows from the violins on their lower strings, crawling bassoon lines in the lower register, and so on – and all of these were given their full measure here. In his statement of the opening theme on solo horn, Tim Thorpe was blessedly free of any suspicion of Slavonic vibrato, but he was superbly expressive. The only doubts about this performance arose at the beginning of the finale, with Søndergård initially setting what might have been regarded as a slightly cautious speed; but the manner in which Tchaikovsky imaginatively rings the changes on the persistent repetition of the main theme soon caught fire, and the final Presto coda stormed to a whirlwind close.
The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3, and will be available on the BBC i-player for the next seven days. Listeners should enjoy the performances immensely.
Paul Corfield Godfrey