Illuminating and Refreshing Contrasts from Koenigs and WNO Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Beethoven, Debussy, Bartók: Olga Scheps (piano), Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Lothar Koenigs (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 16.1.2005 (PCG)

Dvořák – The Noonday Witch
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 4
Debussy – Prélude a l’après-midi d’une faune
Bartók – The Miraculous Mandarin: Suite

In the past the policy of the WNO series of orchestral concerts has been notable for featuring works in some way connected to the company’s current season of stage productions; and this event was no exception, being based around the concept of ‘Spellbound’ to tie in with presentations of The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel. The enterprising idea has generated some extremely interesting programmes, although here the relevance of two of the works presented was at best tangential to the theme. Nonetheless the contrasts were illuminating and refreshing.

For example, the opening presentation of Dvořák’s The Noonday Witch provided a rare opportunity to hear this late score in a superlatively characterful performance. One wonders if Dvořák might have secured a higher profile for his series of four supernatural tone-poems if he had combined them into a cycle like Smetana’s Ma Vlast (although the popularity of Carnival has not served to rescue Dvořák’s two companion overtures in his trilogy of linked works); but there again the sheer unpleasantness of the stories the composer chose to illustrate may have militated against their popularity despite his sometimes startlingly tuneful treatment of them. At all events it was delightful to encounter this severely neglected score, which was launched by Robert Plane on clarinet (moonlighting from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) with winning insouciance. The subsequent dramatic contrasts were superbly realised, and the audience clearly enjoyed what for many must have been a novel experience.

I was pleased to see that Lothar Koenigs split the violins left to right across the platform, which is what Dvořák would have expected in his music; and this disposition of the orchestra paid dividends too in the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto, although otherwise this was essentially ‘big-band’ Beethoven in the romantic style. The division of the violins ensured that the woodwind parts came through loud and clear, and the solo playing of Olga Scheps benefited too. Her reading was rather more classical in style than romantic, with dramatically louder passages achieved by sheer weight of fingering rather than the obscuring resonance of the sustaining pedal; but there was plenty of delicacy in the filigree ornamentation as well. The cadenzas, which appeared to have been somewhat edited from Beethoven’s own, were delivered dramatically and effectively. The programme note by Sophie Rashbrook twice mentioned a suggestion by Adolph Bernhardt Marx that the second movement was intended as an illustration of the taming of the Furies by Orpheus; but this surely postdates the original suggestion by Liszt that the inspiration was Orpheus’s taming of the wild beasts, although neither proposal had the authority of the composer. Presumably to underline this Orpheus parallel Scheps provided an encore in the shape of an anonymous arrangement of the flute solo from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, delivered with great freedom of tempo; but the linkage was effectively dissipated by the fact that no announcement of the identity of the music was given to the audience. Last year I complained about this bad habit of performers, and the hall management informed me that they would ask artists to give this information before performing an encore; but their requests in this instance clearly fell on deaf ears. A pity, since this was an opportunity missed to underline the relevance of the music to the ‘Spellbound’ theme.

After the interval the Debussy Prélude was given a delightful performance with clarity at a premium, especially with the two harps placed at the very front of the stage and the antique cymbals coming across clearly during the closing bars. Koenigs, abandoning his baton, clearly sought a sense of freedom and rubato in the phrasing, and the woodwind soloists in particular relished this, with Jonathan Burgess on flute deservedly receiving a solo ovation. This was Debussy in the light of the noonday sun, although personally I missed the impressionist heat haze that was also surely part of the composer’s inspiration.

With Bartók’s depiction of seamy city streets in The Miraculous Mandarin however the clarity was welcome; and Koenigs, in the best performance of the evening sparkling with electricity, made sure that every strand of the music registered in its full impact. Robert Plane’s clarinet solos fully justified his recruitment for this concert as ‘guest section principal’ but all the instrumentalists seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves, reminding me of this same orchestra’s superlative performance of Bluebeard’s Castle in the opera house a few years back. On the other hand one questioned the inclusion of this suite in a programme devoted to the idea of ‘Spellbound’. The only supernatural element in the ballet consists of the Mandarin’s inability to die while his lust for the prostitute remains unconsummated; and, given the absence of Bartók’s offstage chorus, the suite from the ballet given here entirely omits this sequence – although Sophie Rashbrook’s programme note described the entire scenario, completely ignoring that fact. The final fugal section brought the audience (rightly) cheering to their feet, and the only dissenting comment I heard came from an elderly lady leaving the hall who remarked to her companion “Well, that’s Bartók deleted from my list.” Hers was very much a minority opinion.


Paul Corfield Godfrey


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