Magnificent Performance of The Bells Deserved a More Appreciative Audience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov, Borodin, Elgar, Huw Watkins, Stravinsky:  John Daszak (tenor), Anastasia Kalagina (soprano), Mikhail Petrenko (bass), Malin Broman (violin), Rachel Gough (bassoon), Hannah Stone (harp), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales /  Thomas Søndergård (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 3.10.2015 (PCG)

StravinskyFireworks (1908)

Huw Watkins London Concerto (2005)

BorodinPrince Igor: Polovtsian Dances (c1887)

Elgar Cockaigne Overture (1901)

RachmaninovThe Bells (1913)

This was the first of a series of concerts to be mounted in Cardiff during the next few months to feature the work of Rachmaninov, and his choral symphony The Bells formed the centrepiece of what was otherwise a peculiarly disparate programme. The evening got off to a rather downbeat start with Stravinsky’s early orchestral Fireworks. Although this was the miniature that encouraged Diaghilev to commission the composer to take on the task of writing  The Firebird when Liadov fell by the wayside, there is very little in the oddly subdued music which we do not hear to be more telling effect in Stravinsky’s later works; and indeed I rather doubt that the rather inconsequential piece would be deemed worthy of revival if it were not by Stravinsky. Despite the best efforts of Thomas Søndergård and his excellent BBC players, it remains something of a damp squib.

Huw Watkins’s London Concerto was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra back in 2005 for its centenary season, and Anthony Burton in his programme note compared it to an eighteenth century concerto grosso in its unusual combination of violin, bassoon and harp. When confronted with such a disparate grouping, the composer has really only two choices: either to contrast them by all means possible, or to seek to assimilate them into a unified section in counterpoint to the main orchestra. Huw Watkins chose the first option, setting a trenchant violin part in opposition to a more lyrical bassoon line, leaving the harp to provide an almost accompanying role. Hannah Stone did what she could with the latter, and Rachel Gough provided rich tone in her melodic ruminations; but Malin Broman sounded ill at ease in her jagged lines. The composer inserts into the concerto two briefish interludes for orchestra alone, the first featuring an almost concertante part for solo horn, and the second isolating a solo piccolo octaves above a parallel line in the brass – which did not sound quite together in this performance. It was only in the final movement that the instruments really cohered into a whole, which was rather late in the day. I am not sure why this concerto, composed for a specific occasion ten years ago, should have been selected for revival in preference to Huw Watkins’s much more accessible and enjoyable Violin Concertino given by this orchestra in the Hoddinott Hall three years ago, and which really deserves a further outing.

Things began to pick up just before the interval with the first appearance this season of the BBC National Chorus of Wales in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. There was plenty of impact to the sound, and Søndergård avoided the post-Kismet temptations to turn the ‘Stranger in Paradise’ tune into a romantic ballad, keeping the feeling of the dance rhythms present throughout and integrating the passage into the score in a manner that anticipated its later reappearance in counterpoint to the more barbaric passages later on. The momentum was maintained after the interval in an all-out performance of Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, complete with the ad lib organ part in the final bars which produced an overwhelming effect. There was all the sparkle one could wish for here, and the performance quite obviated the niggling doubts I had begun to harbour about the music itself following the peculiarly disembodied account of the score given by Sir Roger Norrington at the opening night of the Proms a few years back. This orchestra understands Elgar’s scoring, and the sense of light and shade was marvellously realised; Søndergård too seems to warm to the composer, possibly with a sense of new discovery which communicates readily with the listener.

In a brief spoken introduction to the concert, Søndergård had lauded Rachmaninov’s The Bells as a masterpiece, and the performance of this choral symphony which concluded the concert showed him determined to prove the point to an oddly unresponsive audience (the cheers which had greeted his Mahler Second just before the end of last season were decidedly subdued here). The audience had no right to such a reaction, or lack of it. John Daszek, standing in at the last minute for the announced Misha Didyk, sang with real heroic tone in the first movement; it was not his fault that Rachmaninov’s writing for the solo voice against the full massed choral and orchestral forces reduced him to semi-inaudibility in some places. (Rachmaninov was far from alone in his mistaken belief that soloists isolated at the front of the stage could make themselves heard in this manner. A false analogy may have been drawn from what happens on the operatic stage; but there the orchestra, sunk in a pit which reduces the volume of their contribution, and a chorus placed well behind the soloist, allows the individual singer to project in a manner that is very much more difficult to resolve in a more resonant concert hall with all the performers at the same level. Elgar and Vaughan Williams managed to bring this sort of effect off in a manner that defeated – for example – Finzi, and similar examples can be cited from choral music in all nationalities.) Anastasia Kalagina, with her warm creamy tone, had no such problems presented to her by Rachmaninov; and in the finale Mikhail Petrenko, although similarly inconvenienced in places by the sheer impossibility of maintaining a clear balance, came ringing across with a sense of communication that survived the translation of Edgar Allen Poe’s original heated poetry into Russian (in the programme the BBC commendably supplied transliteration and translation both here and in the Borodin).

The hell-raising third movement, with the chorus and orchestra challenged by Søndergård’s speeds in what is most certainly the most extravagantly difficult music Rachmaninov ever wrote, was quite overwhelming. In the full orchestral score Rachmaninov oddly writes for a ‘pianino’ (by which I presume he means an upright piano) presumably out of concern for fitting the large orchestra onto a concert platform; here we had a full-scale concert grand, which did not have a lot to do but made a clear mark in the disturbing chords which interrupt the beautiful cor anglais solo at the beginning of the last movement. Rachmaninov himself seems to have been unclear how many strings he wanted; in the third movement he indicates 12 players, but then in the last movement asks for eight desks (that is 16 players) in each of the violin sections. Here we had 14 and 12 respectively of firsts and seconds, which seems a reasonable compromise; and the warmth of sound that these players produced has all the richness one could desire. Even the bells, notated in the bass clef, which Rachmaninov asks for in the second movement, were in the octave indicated by the composer (something one can not always take for granted). Altogether I do not expect to hear a better performance of a work which will always be rare in performance if only because of the difficulties it poses for the choir. I just wish more people had been there to hear it too. The programme was being recorded for future broadcast, and doubtless the problems of balance will be resolved by the microphones; when Radio 3 do get round to transmitting it, it will well reward investigation.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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