Rewarding Concert from BBC NOW and Søndergård Embraces Dutilleux, Debussy and Mozart

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dutilleux, Debussy, Mozart:  Akiko Suwani* (violin), Rebecca Evans+ (soprano), Jennifer Johnston+ (mezzo-soprano),  Timothy Robinson+ (tenor), Alastair Miles+ (bass), BBC National Orchestra and Chorus+ of Wales / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 22.1.2016. (PCG)

Henri DutilleuxMétabolesSur la meme accord

Claude Debussy (completed Robert Orledge) – Nocturne [UK première]

Mozart (completed Süssmayr) – Requiem

This concert was of course scheduled some months ago in memory of the centenary of Henri Dutilleux’s birth, but in the event it made a rather back-handed memorial also to the recent death of Dutilleux’s arch-enemy Pierre Boulez. The two leading French composers of their generation were notoriously bitter rivals, and Dutilleux complained vociferously that the baleful influence of Boulez inside France made it necessary for him to seek commissions and performances outside his native country – in which of course he resembled Berlioz the century before. But the programme for this concert also paid a more complimentary tribute to Boulez, recalling the juxtaposition of new and old works which was such a feature of his BBC scheduling in the 1970s. Indeed, there were three distinct strands in this concert, and although initially I was dubious as to whether an audience would respond to such a wide disparity of styles the hall was commendably full.  Though I suspect the majority of the listeners were there for the Mozart (as was confirmed by the vociferous cheers at the end of the performance of the Requiem) I hope that many of them will have enjoyed the works in the first half of the concert as well.

We must presume that the animosity between Boulez and Dutilleux was personally motivated, since otherwise the music of the latter would seem to lie in the mainstream of the former’s sphere of interest – at any rate as evidenced by the works he chose to conduct and record. The influence of Ravel and Messiaen is palpable in Métaboles, with its glittering surfaces surrounding a still quiet undertow of contemplative calm. My companion, the organist from my local church who had come principally to hear the Mozart, thoroughly enjoyed the experience of encountering Dutilleux, a name previously unknown to him; and the applause at the end, more than simply polite, seemed to confirm that the composer had made converts elsewhere in the hall too. In Sur la même accord violin soloist Akiko Suwani seemed to experience some problems with the composer’s mercilessly high harmonics, always tricky to bring off in live performance, but otherwise both scores were delivered with poise and precision under the precise direction of Søndergård.

Before the second half of the concert Suwani was again the soloist in a real novelty, Robert Orledge’s realisation of Debussy’s 1906 sketches for a concertante work commissioned by Ysayë but abandoned by him after the violinist withdrew from the project “for financial reasons”. I am reliably informed by a friend sitting up in the gallery that when Orledge took a bow from the platform at the end, he overheard someone in the row in front enquiring of her companion whether ‘that was Debussy’. To judge by the music, it might well have been. A couple of years ago I admired Orledge’s performing version of Debussy’s Fall of the House of Usher and here again the listener could appreciate the manner in which the delicate style of Debussy’s orchestration was imitated. There were many passages of extreme beauty which clearly justify Orledge’s resuscitation of Debussy’s sketches, but at the same time the sense of inevitable development which underlies Debussy’s only-seemingly nebulous impressionism was understandably missing. What we heard was a series of very wonderful moments which were marvellous to hear in their own right but which did not have the sense of integrated unity that Debussy would doubtless have brought to the piece if he had completed it; and the virtuoso passages that he wrote for Ysayë stood somewhat apart from the whole, although Suwanai played them with verve and passion. I will be listening to this Nocturne again.

Mozart’s Requiem too was of course left in a fragmentary state, but the completion by Süssmayr still remains generally satisfactory despite the evident shortcomings of Mozart’s pupil in handling the material he necessarily had to supply. The programme note by David Wyn Jones properly gave credit to the pupil’s work in a way that some modern detractors have not; but I remain convinced that the opening theme of the Benedictus, usually ascribed to Süssmayr, is a cut about that composer’s usual abilities, and surely must have been based on a theme conveyed to him by Mozart – a conviction that is reinforced by the clumsy way in which Süssmayr subsequently develops the opening material. Süssmayr’s completion of the Lacrymosa, often the most criticised of his contributions (he ignored Mozart’s apparent intention of providing a fugal ‘Amen’), came across here with real passion which sounded inevitable.

The performance itself was decidedly in what I suppose we should call the ‘romantic’ style of interpretation, although the large chorus listed in the programme was reduced in size by about a third in a supplied insert. Rebecca Evans was also a late substitute for Susan Gritton as the soprano soloist, but there was plenty of unity in the quartet of solo singers who were well balanced between themselves. However one must question the advisability of placing the four soloists behind the orchestra and in front of the choir; the balance that resulted was far from satisfactory in the hall (doubtless the live radio broadcast will have corrected this) with Alastair Miles in the Tuba mirum oddly positioned next to, but behind, the solo tenor trombone. He projected with full operatic force, but he really should not have needed to; and it is interesting to note that the first published edition of the score by Breitkopf and Härtel assigned the obligato part in this passage to bassoon rather than trombone – which would certainly seem to be more in keeping with the otherwise unidiomatic brass writing after the opening fanfare-like phrase. Did Süssmayr simply misinterpret Mozart’s intentions here?

The other singers had more difficulty in making their lines ideally clear over the orchestra in solo passages, even though the string strength was substantially reduced; and I must express gratitude to Thomas Søndergård who distributed his violins antiphonally left and right across the stage, a procedure which is surely incontrovertibly right in music of this period and which pays real dividends in terms of the audibility of wind lines (the basset horns played plangently). I know that this platform layout fell into disuse because of the disparity produced between the first violins (playing towards the audience) and the seconds (playing towards the back of the stage) but it was clearly what composers up to and including Mahler had in mind; and the string players of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales have no need for reinforcement of their strong tone and precise articulation. I hope that Søndergård will persist with this platform placement when he gives us Mahler’s First Symphony this summer; it really makes a difference. I need hardly add, but it needs to be said, that the BBC National Chorus of Wales were superlative in their delivery of the choral lines, placed though they were at the back of the stage rather than raised above the orchestra in the choir seating; there was power, precision, and engagement that it would be too easy to take for granted. I liked, too, the bubbling performance of the Domine Jesu Christe.

The concert, apart from being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, is also available to hear on the Radio 3 website for the next thirty days. I would strongly recommend those who missed the original relay to explore a programme that was interesting, rewarding and enjoyable.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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