Memorable Martinů from Michael Francis and BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Janáček, Ravel, Roussel, Martin: Louis Schwizgebel (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Michael Francis (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 23.9.2014 (PCG)

Janáček – Taras Bulba
Ravel – Piano Concerto for the left hand
Roussel – Concerto for small orchestra
Martinů – Symphony No 6 ‘Fantaisies symphoniques’



The programme for Janáček’s symphonic fantasy Taras Bulba is of a violent barbarism which makes Game of Thrones look like Paddington Bear, with each of its three movements describing the grisly death of a member of the same Cossack family. Nevertheless Janáček’s music manages to provide plenty of lyric contrast, interlacing pastoral episodes with the more full-blooded dramatic tableaux. The orchestra under Michael Francis made the most of all these juxtapositions, with a biting savagery in the string playing that is exactly what the music demands, and avoiding any sense of tameness such as one sometimes finds in performances that stress the symphonic nature of the writing at the expense of the pictorial. The tortured clarinet playing of Robert Plane at the end of The death of Ostap froze the blood.

It came then as something of a shock to realise that, especially in the resonant acoustic of the Hoddinott Hall, Ravel’s rumbustious scoring in his left-handed Piano Concerto has almost the same level of sheer volume as Taras Bulba. In his opening challenge which followed the orchestral tutti (with a rumbling double-bassoon solo kept well in the picture by David Buckland), Louis Schwizgebel displayed plenty of power; but there were places later in the score when he was nearly overwhelmed by the orchestra, as in the initial statement of the march theme in the central section. This will doubtless have been corrected by microphone placement in the broadcast, and is in any event largely the composer’s fault when he in the enthusiasm of his writing he failed to recognise that one pianistic hand could not hope to produce the volume of two. Schwizgebel looked positively relieved to be able to bring his right hand into play for the encore of Liszt’s Consolation No 3 (a delicately poised performance).

Even more delicately poised was the Roussel Concerto scored for a much reduced orchestra. This is a work from the composer’s neo-classical phase, spiced with obligatory ‘wrong notes’ in the best Stravinskian mode, and it was played here with charm and wit. But with the best will in the world one notices the lack of any distinctive memorability in the thematic material, even in the ironic waltz of the finale.

Martinů’s final symphony is a work of a very much greater stature. Before the performance itself Michael Francis took the opportunity to demonstrate some of the basic thematic material which recurs throughout all three movements, but in truth these would have been easy to detect even for a totally innocent ear. The main motto theme was cited by Peter Reynolds in his programme notes as a quotation from Dvořák’s Requiem (it is also the main motto of that work) and as such one might conclude that it represents Martinů’s contemplation of death; but in fact the theme (which also has a close resemblance in outline to the BACH motif used by many composers from Johann Sebastian onwards) also has a close cousin in one of the main themes in the Vaughan Williams Fourth Symphony, and when Martinů turns it into the subject of a fugal development in the final movement the resemblances to Vaughan Williams become even closer. For most of the time however the music is unmistakably Martinů with its Moravian cadential turns, and the orchestra clearly thoroughly enjoyed playing the work. As I observed earlier this year when reviewing the performance of the Frescoes of Piero della Francesca at St David’s Hall, Cardiff audiences have had a soft spot for Martinů ever since Mackerras’s performances of The Greek Passion at Welsh National Opera in 1981, and this symphony only whetted the appetite for more of this composer’s original yet totally characteristic music. The orchestra played like gods, and Nick Whiting’s solo violin counter-melody in the final movement was perfectly balanced against the tumultuously surging background. The climaxes were properly overwhelming.

The performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, but will be available for a further seven days on the internet and would well repay investigation by all listeners.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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