Concert of Baltic Music Lacks Dynamic Contrast and Shading

Tubin, Pärt, Vasks: Baiba Skride (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Anu Tali (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 10.2.2015 (PCG)

Pēteris Vasks – Distant Light (1996-7)
Eduard Tubin – Symphony No 4 ‘Sinfonia lirica’ (1942-3, revised 1978)

Tubin’s Fourth Symphony was the work that began to establish the composer’s international reputation during the 1980s, and was indeed the first of his symphonies to be recorded. Although it was performed by the Ulster Orchestra last year (its UK première) this was its first outing in Great Britain, part of a most enterprising programme of music from Estonia and Latvia given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the young Estonian conductor Anu Tali.

The original score used for the first performance in 1944 suffered damage by fire during the bombing of Tallinn in the closing stages of the Second World War, and Tubin had to reconstruct (and to a certain extent refashion) the music before Neeme Järvi’s Bergen performance in 1982 which was recorded and released by BIS. Comparison of that first modern outing with this concert rendering, however, showed up some defects in the latter which I’m afraid could largely be laid at the door of the conductor. Her precise beat was to a considerable extent vitiated by her failure to employ her left hand in anything other than sweeping generalised gestures, which gave little guidance to an orchestra who inevitably were unfamiliar with the music; and the players perforce had to resort to a rather uninflected mezzo forte which did little to clarify Tubin’s sometimes congested textures and counterpoint. I found myself longing for more delicate piano and pianissimo shadings, which were in decidedly short supply.

The resultant performance particularly at the start sounded more like Bax than Tubin (as encountered in Järvi’s première recording), with the woodwind and brass often over-loud and over-emphatic even when the players were endeavouring to observe the dynamics in the parts in front of them. (On a rather different note, might we hope at some stage in the future for some Bax symphonies from this orchestra, who on their current excellent form could really do justice to them?) The ensemble and balance improved during the second movement, although even here the pulsing string accompaniment sounded over-weighty; and in the third movement the sense of generalised romanticism reached its climax far too soon, while Tali neither sought (nor obtained) any sense of a dying diminuendo at the end of that movement.

Unfortunately the same lack of dynamic contrast and shading was apparent throughout the remainder of the programme, and once again the orchestral accompaniment in Vasks’s violin concerto Distant light was simply frequently too loud. This work is an absolute gem, a delicate and sometimes trenchant concerto which combines elements of pastoral Finzi and Vaughan Williams with occasional eruptions of more modern string techniques, without either counterbalancing the other. It cast a spell over the audience, but it could have been better if it had been less forceful. On the other hand Baiba Skride was a simply excellent soloist, completely on top of both the considerable pyrotechnics required as well as the beautifully floated high-lying lyrical lines and she never made the mistake of forcing her tone in order to dominate the textures. She played a Stradivarius violin loaned to her by Gidon Kremer, who by a happy coincidence had given the first performance of this work, and she yielded no points to her elder compatriot in her commitment to the music.

The concert had begun with a performance of the revised version of Pärt’s Fratres, probably the only work on the programme that was familiar to more than a handful of the audience. The use of a larger body of violins than we are generally accustomed to encounter in this music brought a considerable degree of emotional intensity to Pärt’s coldly sculptured lines, although the playing of the temple block and bass drum by the percussionist isolated at the very rear of the stage sounded undesirably detached from the whole and once again the solid imperturbability of the sound was less ethereal than might be regarded as ideal. This orchestra really needed more of a lead from their conductor to come to grips with this music, but the sense of communication seemed to have gone missing. I should perhaps add that the members of the audience, most of whom were doubtless encountering this music for the first time, seemed to appreciate what they heard without being over-enthusiastic. The live broadcast is available on the BBC i-player for the next month, and those who love (or wish to become better acquainted with) this repertoire may well wish to listen again to these performances, although they may also wish to compare them with the available commercial recordings.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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