United Kingdom Mahler, Szymanowski, Lunn: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Nadine Koutcher (soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales cond. Thomas Søndergård. St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 17.6.2016 (PCG)
John Lunn – Villette world première
Karol Szymanowski – Violin Concerto No 2
Gustav Mahler – Symphony No 1
Thomas Søndergård’s performances of Mahler symphonies, delivered at the sensible rate of one per year, have become a highlight of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales seasons at St David’s Hall, and this thrilling rendition of Mahler’s First proved to be a worthy successor to its predecessors in earlier years. The hall was very nearly full for this programme, and the audience was if anything over-enthusiastic, not only breaking in with applause at the end of both the Mahler and Szymanowski scores before the music had actually finished, but also interrupting the violin concerto with an unwanted ripple of applause at the end of the cadenza. These selfish enthusiasts might pause to consider that, no matter how much they may have enjoyed the music, their premature demonstrations will stop fellow members of the audience actually hearing it. Classical music is not to be applauded in the same manner as a pop concert. If this trend continues, could the BBC possibly consider putting a note in their programmes asking the audience to refrain from applause until the music has actually finished – and if they are unsure, to wait for a moment to see what happens next?
Having got that grumble out of the way, the performance of the Mahler First Symphony thoroughly deserved its applause. Although Mahler revised the score some ten years after its première, his inexperience in the symphonic form shows in the somewhat ungainly structure, with its repeats in the first two movements and the extensive return to the beginning of the work during the finale which can leave the onward momentum dangerously becalmed just as it seems to be moving towards a conclusion. Thomas Søndergård rightly kept such passages from wallowing, and secured generally crisp and excellent playing from the enlarged orchestra (one keck (cheeky) phrase for the piccolo clarinet squawked into the upper octave in a manner which was rather more keck than Mahler intended, but the effect was entertaining is just the right way). The strings produced plenty of fire in their many wild passages (Mahler’s word, again) in the finale and gently floated their opening harmonics with a proper other-worldliness, helped by the offstage trumpets distanced in exactly the way Mahler specifies in the score. Another very fine contribution to Søndergård’s Mahler cycle.
Before the interval we heard Nicola Benedetti in Szyamnowski’s Second Violin Concerto, last heard in Cardiff in November 2013 with this same orchestra when Tamsin Little was the soloist. When reviewing that performance, I noted that the soloist displayed some difficulties in making herself heard over the composer’s luscious orchestration (Olari Elts the conductor on that occasion). Here Søndergård seemed to be better able to control the accompaniment to Benedetti’s playing, although there was still plenty of richness in evidence and her performance of the extraordinarily difficult cadenza was hair-raisingly assured. I remarked three years ago that the concerto is a rarity in the concert hall, and that I was grateful for the chance to hear it; I am even more grateful if (as it seems) its rarity status is now in doubt.
The concert opened with a specially commissioned work written for Nadine Koutcher as part of her prize as Cardiff Singer of the World in 2015. The event proved uninspiring. John Lunn, who has demonstrated in his film and television scores the ability to produce memorable thematic material, seemed either unable or unwilling to do so here, with the result that the music was entirely dependent on the text. This was taken from an early novel by Charlotte Brontë, which the author herself described as a “little puzzle”. Actually the prolix effusions – “Peace, be still! Oh! a thousand weepers, praying in agony on waiting shores…” – did little to illuminate the meaning, and the problems were doubly confounded by the fact that Nadine Koutcher seemed to have only the most tangential knowledge of the English language. Rhythmic mis-accentuations of the text could have been due either to the composer or the singer, but the curdled vowel sounds and swallowed consonants rendered the words totally incomprehensible without the full text provided in the programme – and not easily deciphered even then, as various passages were repeated without warning. At the end the music returned to the material of the beginning, but nothing seemed to have happened in between, except some nicely delivered phrases from the singer and some colourful if over-loud orchestration. Although described as a “world première” the work had apparently already been performed in Swansea (as part of the same programme) the previous evening. And one suspects that, after the broadcast relay on Radio 3, it will not receive further outings unless another singer takes up the score.
Still, this was only ten minutes of a concert which brought the BBC NoW season at St David’s Hall for 2015-16 to a resounding conclusion. The orchestra’s director Michael Garvey made a brief speech from the platform at the start recalling some of the highlights of the season, perhaps rather invidiously from the point of view of those who escaped mention. I would certainly wish to add to his list the performance of Rachmaninov’s The Bells which had opened the season last October. And the orchestra have given us some really magnificent performances of comparative rarities in some enterprising concerts at the Hoddinott Hall, where they are giving their final concert on 1 July in memory of the Battle of the Somme in a programme which includes Delius’s beautiful and neglected Requiem.
Paul Corfield Godfrey