United Kingdom Respighi, Liszt, Korngold: Olena Tokar (soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Damian Iorio (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 26 April 2016 (PCG)
Liszt – Two Legends (orchestral version, 1863)
Respighi – Il tramonto (1914)
Korngold – Six Simple Songs, Op.9 (1911-13): Nos 1, 3, 4 and 6
Respighi – Church Windows (1926)
This most enterprising and interesting programme was billed as “an afternoon with Olena Tokar” and featured the Ukrainian soprano in works by Respighi and Korngold. Tokar was one of the finalists in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in 2013, and since then has been a member of the ensemble at the opera in Leipzig as well as being a BBC New Generation Artist. Her return to Cardiff was most welcome, especially in such unusual repertoire, and she has clearly developed into a most sensitive and subtle artist. Her delivery of Respighi’s setting of Shelley in Il tramonto was a model of careful shading, with many beautifully delivered half-tones; but it was a pity that much of this engagement was dissipated by the failure of the BBC’s programme notes to supply the text or translation; Peter Reynolds’s brief summary of the words was not really sufficient to illustrate the close sense of identification with the poetry which Respighi so amply sought to supply. Even more serious was the lack of texts for the four ‘simple’ songs by Korngold which followed the interval, where the composer’s far from ‘simple’ response to the words demonstrated yet again the sheer marvel of the infant prodigy’s imagination. Liebesbriefchen in particular, with its filigree writing for harp and piano, looked forward to Marietta’s song from Die tote Stadt, with a melody that if anything was even more effective than that beautiful aria.
The concert had begun with a fine performance of the orchestral version of Liszt’s Two Legends which the composer arranged from his piano originals but the score of which inexplicably remained unpublished for over a century. Admittedly the orchestral version of St Francis of Paola walking on the waves underlines a close family resemblance of the saint to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, but even so the originality of Liszt’s writing remains evident and the strings clearly relished the warmth of their melodic lines as Saint Francis of Assisi preached his sermon to the birds; there is no irony to be found here, as in Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn depiction of Saint Antony’s sermon to the fishes immortalised in his Resurrection Symphony, just a simple and very effective portrayal of the situation.
Even better was the final item on the programme, an absolutely stunning delivery of Respighi’s Church windows, like the Liszt an orchestration (and expansion) by the composer from an original piano score. This collection of four brief symphonic poems has always been overshadowed in public affection by Respighi’s Roman trilogy of tone paintings, but ever since I first heard it in a recording by Eugene Ormandy back in the 1960s I have always regarded it as superior to anything to be found there. And this performance was quite simply the best rendition of the music I have ever encountered. The figurations from the woodwind in The flight into Egypt were beautifully integrated into the texture, and the offstage trumpet in St Michael the Archangel achieved just the right sort of ethereal effect. Similarly the string counterpoints in the final St Gregory the Great were superbly well in the picture (they can easily find themselves drowned out in the general clamour of bells), and the performance of The Matins of St Clare even brought out the unexpected pre-echo of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem at one point (did Britten even know Respighi’s score?). The dynamic range which Damian Iorio obtained from the orchestra was simply overwhelming; the concert is being broadcast on Radio 3 at some time in the next couple of weeks, but the engineers will have their work cut out to convey anything like the excitement generated in the hall. The only fly in the ointment was the somewhat bullish and reedy tone of the Hoddinott Hall organ in the closing section, but the weight of the underpinning organ pedals in the second movement was magnificent. Church windows is not a work that could ever be described as easy to play, but the orchestra seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves and indeed played throughout with the sense of engagement that has been a feature of their performances for some years now.
Paul Corfield Godfrey