Prokofiev and Rachmaninov Trump Tchaikovsky in BBC NOW’s St Valentine’s Day Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev: Freddy Kempf (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 14.2.2016 (PCG)

Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No 2
Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet: excerpts

As a sort of belated appendage to the St David’s Hall season of Rachmaninov orchestral works last autumn, we here had the Second Piano Concerto omitted from the earlier concerts; and a very fine appendage it made too. In December 2015 Peter Donohoe had impressed the Cardiff audience mightily with the Third Concerto; Freddy Kempf here was equally enthralling from the very beginning, enunciating the difficult opening passage with absolute assurance and all the power that one could desire. Later on in this same movement he delineated the rhythmically repeated notes that can so often become blurred with absolute clarity; and at the beginning of the second movement his rapt interchange with the flute of Matthew Featherstone and the clarinet of Robert Plane, listening intently to the wind presentation of the themes and echoing it in his own accompaniment, testified to a musicianship that evoked the close partnership of chamber music. The concert was advertised as a celebration of St Valentine’s Day, and the appearance of the Second Concerto was presumably intended to evoke the world of its starring role in David Lean’s film Brief Encounter (the programme note by David Fanning implied as much); but there was never any suspicion of sentimentality in either Kempf’s performance or Thomas Søndergård’s conducting, just a beauty of line and delivery that carried its own considerable emotional impact.

I am not sure either how much the joyful celebration of relationships which St Valentine’s Day is intended to commemorate has in common with the doomed relationship of Romeo and Juliet, “star-cross’d lovers” of precisely the opposite type. No matter. The selection of excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet score, taking items from each of the composer’s three orchestral suites, was well-balanced and dramatically engaging; and although the chosen items did not follow the progress of the plot slavishly, there was a sense of narrative which the composer’s suites does not convey. The stratospheric heights of Prokofiev’s writing for the violins held no terrors for the strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who soared into the upper regions with absolute assurance and a sense of warmth that was well-nigh miraculous to hear. Superlative too was Matthew Featherstone’s flute solo in the opening of Romeo and Juliet before parting, clearly the nightingale of Juliet’s wishful imaginings. And the sheer sense of violence that Søndergård conjured with the opening Prelude to Act Three and during The death of Tybalt produced lacerating playing from the orchestra at full stretch. David Gutman’s programme notes, clearly written with this specific performance in mind, were both informative and germane.

The programme had opened with a solid performance of Tchaikovsky’s ‘fantasy overture’ on the same subject, but there was a nagging suspicion that the greater part of the rehearsal time might have gone on the rest of the programme; the woodwind chording in the opening chorale was not always quite together, and Tchaikovsky’s many transition passages sometimes threatened to become becalmed. I was not convinced, either, by the clearly intentional prominence given to the horn solo which acts as a counterpoint to the repeat of the ‘love theme’ but which threatened at times to overpower the wind melody itself. But the rest of the concert made ample amends, rising to the highest standards which we have come to expect from this body of performers. The large audience, despite some hacking coughers, were highly impressed. The concert is due to be broadcast on Radio 3 around the end of March, and will be worth looking out for.

One incidental gripe. The concert started a full quarter of an hour late (no explanation was given), and this meant that some members of the audience found it necessary to leave before the end of the Prokofiev – presumably because of public transport difficulties. Concerts given on a Sunday afternoon in Cardiff will always run this risk, when trains and buses can be very widely spaced. Just a note for future reference; but the whole of the row in the centre of the stalls to my left had been vacated by the end of the performance.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


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