Otaka and Goerner Bring Cardiff’s Rachmaninov Series to Fine Conclusion

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Grieg, Rachmaninov: Nelson Goerner (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Tadaki Otaka (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 20.11.2015. (PCG)

Grieg Holberg Suite

Grieg – Piano Concerto in A minor

RachmaninovSymphonic Dances

For the final concert in St David’s Hall’s Rachmaninov season, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who had launched the cycle with The Bells some six weeks back, returned under the direction of their conductor-laureate Tadaki Otaka. But the first half of the concert was devoted to Grieg, and very good it was too.

We are used to hearing Grieg’s Holberg Suite performed by a smallish number of players, which might seem to fit with the music’s evocation of eighteenth century style; but the performance here served to demonstrate how much the piece really benefits from a large romantic body of strings, such as one would expect to find in a work like the Tchaikovsky Serenade for example. The strings of this orchestra have long been one of their glories, and the richness of tone that they produced totally dispelled any suspicion that this might be regarded in any way as a precursor of the neo-classical movement. The conductor judiciously pruned some of the many marked repeats in Grieg’s score, and the delicate playing in the Air (marked by Grieg “Andante religioso”) spoke of a romantic sensibility which was far removed from any suspicion of baroque pastiche. In the final Rigaudon Leslie Hatfield gave a sparkling performance of her substantial solo role.

At the very start of the Grieg Piano Concerto Nelson Goerner threw down a really mighty challenge with his opening downward cascade, and although at times his playing in quiet passages might have threatened to overpower woodwind solos, the balances between soloist and orchestra were generally very well realised. Matthew Featherstone floated the beautiful melody which interrupts the final movement with a serene air of Norwegian sunlight that was positively enchanting, and Goerner and Otaka fully relished the once shocking modulation in the final bars where Grieg suddenly plunges this same melody into a full orchestral declamation in the minor key. We are accustomed to this now, but when the work was new it sent Liszt into ecstasies. Goerner unexpectedly supplied an encore in the shape of Scriabin’s Poem in F-sharp major (even the BBC weren’t expecting this, I was told), but it was a shame that he didn’t announce what he was playing, with the result that the audience was left totally in the dark about what they had been listening to. I presume this deficit will be remedied when the concert is broadcast this Tuesday.

Otaka recorded Rachmaninov with this orchestra for Nimbus some years back, but the performance here was not free of a suspicion of efficiency rather than engagement. The Symphonic Dances were Rachmaninov’s last orchestral composition, and although he gave no hint of any programmatic intention it is hard to avoid a suspicion that it was in some measure an autobiographical statement. This is especially true of the quotation from the First Symphony towards the end of the first movement, a reminiscence which at the time of the first performance would have passed the audience by completely since Rachmaninov had destroyed the score many years before and it had only ever been performed once. I reviewed a performance given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales a couple of years back in the Hoddinott Hall, and complained then that the work really needed a larger acoustic space to make its full impact. There was plenty of impact here, but passages like the First Symphony citation and the introduction of the beautiful saxophone theme in the first movement (where the tricky balance between the solo instrument and the elaborate woodwind accompaniment was finely judged) went by without the sense of romantic wistfulness that would have set the seal on a technically excellent performance. I note, by the way, that the string passage just before the First Symphony quote is marked in the score to be played on the bridge, and that this instruction is not cancelled before the quotation itself enters. This may be simply an oversight on Rachmaninov’s part, but I can imagine that if the letter of the score were obeyed (although I have never ever heard it played that way) the result could be malignly sinister as well as nostalgic.

Another conundrum in the score lies in the final stroke of the tam-tam which brings the work to an end; should it be allowed to reverberate after the orchestra has finished (which seems to be the modern fashion), or should it be rapidly damped (as many of the earliest conductors of the piece did, and as David Atherton did at the Hoddinott Hall)? When discussing this matter in my previous review, I stated that the score was ambiguous about the matter, and lamented the fact that Rachmaninov was never allowed to conduct the work for recording (as he wished) which would have resolved the issue. Since then I have come across the first edition of the full score published in 1941, which would clearly have been proof-read by the composer, and the tam-tam part at the end is clearly marked “laissez vibrer” (let it resound) – but then later editions of the score omit this marking altogether, which makes one wonder if Rachmaninov afterwards changed his mind. I personally think that the instruction in the original score makes more dramatic sense; but here Otaka, while allowing the tam-tam stroke to die away after the rest of the orchestra had finished, dropped his arm while the sound was still continuing and thereby invited applause from the audience to interrupt the music before it had properly finished. This struck me as a compromise which left a rather unsatisfactory resolution. (The idea, by the way, was not original to Rachmaninov; Respighi had done something rather similar at the end of the second movement of his Church Windows, and doubtless it had also been anticipated by others.)

Despite these reservations, the performance made a fine conclusion to the Rachmaninov series at this venue, which has produced some memorably great performances; and the orchestra, fresh back from their South American tour, sounded on top form throughout. The players clearly enjoyed working with Otaka again. When the concert is broadcast this week (24th November), listeners should make every effort to hear it.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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