BBC NoW’s Season Ends with a Spectacular Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Andersson,  Susan Gritton* (soprano), Jennifer Johnston* (mezzo-soprano), BBC National Chorus* and Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 4.6.2015  (PCG)

B Tommy Andersson – Satyricon (2000)
Mahler – Symphony No 2 in C minor (1894)*


For the final concert of their 2014-15 season, the BBC NoW presented a programme coupling Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony with the British première (I think) of a work by their ‘composer in association’ B Tommy Andersson. The Mahler performance formed part of their ongoing cycle of the symphonies conducted by their principal conductor Thomas Søndergård to follow on from last year’s superlative rendition of the Ninth which I reviewed enthusiastically for this site in February 2014, describing it as “a magnificent representation of Mahler’s clearly expressed intentions.” ( Two small issues that I raised then remained here: the violins were again bunched onto the left-hand side of the stage, which obviated Mahler’s occasional employment of antiphonal effects between the firsts and seconds; and the tubular bells, large though they were, were simply an octave too high for Mahler’s notated pitch.  I will reiterate what I have said on several occasions on this site in respect of the similar problems in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Wagner’s Parsifal; there is a real case to be made for the use of synthesised bell sounds in these circumstances to give us the effect of bells in the octave the composers in question have impractically demanded, as was amply demonstrated some thirty years ago in the Welsh National Opera production of Parsifal, which can be heard on their recording under Sir Reginald Goodall, as well as at Bayreuth.

But Søndergård’s attention to detail, clearly the result of careful and extended rehearsal, again and again paid the most handsome dividends. The pointing of the opening woodwind phrases reflected precisely the markings in Mahler’s score in a manner that one all too seldom hears; and the internal balance between sections of the orchestra and chorus was well-nigh immaculate. The offstage brass in the final movement was sometimes obscured (Mahler makes quite impossible demands here) but they were simply superlative in their final Appel accompanying the exquisitely poised flute and piccolo of Matthew Featherstone and Eva Stewart, whose lines dovetailed into each other in precisely the manner that Mahler clearly intended. Following this the bass section of the choir distinguished themselves in the subterranean lines which Mahler cruelly specifies in the score are “not to be taken an octave higher” and although one might have welcomed an even larger body of the singers in the apocalyptic closing pages the results came through with clarity and some pinging top B-flats from the sopranos.

One problem of balance, however, was created by the positioning of the two vocal soloists rather bizarrely within the desks of the violin section rather than at the front of the stage. Jennifer Johnston’s beautifully poised singing in Urlicht was sometimes obscured by the brass (rather too loud for Mahler’s stated pianissimo dynamics) with the result that her pointing of the text was less than ideally clear. Susan Gritton also clearly felt the need to project more forwardly than she might otherwise have considered to be necessary, which meant that her voice, rather than emerging imperceptibly from the chorus as Mahler clearly intended, jolted rather too suddenly into the texture when she did enter (some bars later than Mahler specified). This however was the only real misjudgement in a performance that rightly brought cheers from the audience, and the live Radio 3 broadcast – which may well have rectified the balance problems – can be heard for another month on the BBC i-player.

The BBC season had opened last year with a performance of Andersson’s The Garden of Delights, and this closing concert featured the same composer’s Satyricon composed eight years earlier. It was described as a “choreographic poem” and indeed there were many aspects which recalled ballet scores from the early twentieth century. The work fell into four sections reflecting various elements in the fragments which are all we possess of Petronius’s picaresque Roman novel; the opening evocation of the Italian atmosphere reminded me of the beginning of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, complete with the same stratospheric oboe lines. The second and fourth movements combined passages reminiscent of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (although without the rhythmic complexity of the latter); but the extended scherzo-like movement was not sufficiently balanced by the rather brief and glacial “eye of a storm” which followed. The finale, described accurately by the composer as “a kind of grotesque dance, wild and noisy”, contained a brief near-quotation from Stravinsky’s Infernal Dance in The Firebird which was slightly too close for comfort; but elsewhere Andersson displayed a mastery of orchestral technique (using an orchestra, including organ, nearly as large as Mahler!) which, while it over-emphasised the higher register of the instruments to ear-splitting effect, was nonetheless immeasurably exciting. Andersson in a spoken introduction to the piece acknowledged the influence of Fellini’s film as well as the original Petronius fragments, but in the process perhaps missed out on the fastidious nature of the writer himself whose cognomen did after all give to the English language the word ‘arbiter’.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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