Good Start to BBC NOW’s Season with a New Principal Guest Conductor

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky,  Barber:  Chloë Hanslip (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Xian Zhang (conductor). BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 27.9. 2016. (PCG)

TchaikovskyEugene Onegin: Polonaise (1878); Symphony No 4 in F minor, Op.36 (1878)

Barber – Violin Concerto (1939, revised 1948)

I reviewed with much enthusiasm a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony given in Cardiff’s St David’s Hall by Xian Zhang in November last year, concluding my review with a comment that “the evident future potential” of the conductor was “exciting to encounter.” With a matter of weeks the BBC National Orchestra of Wales announced her appointment as Principal Guest Conductor; and this programme, once again including the Tchaikovsky symphony, was intended as a welcome to her in her new role.

Her performance of the symphony in 2015 was given with the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, and the conductor’s basic approach to the music remained unchanged; but the change of orchestra and venue did provide for some variation. The sound in the smaller Hoddinott Hall was a decided improvement on that in St David’s, with greater clarity throughout, and the pizzicato opening of the third movement crisper with greater impact. I commented last year on the conductor’s superb control of the brass entry later in the same movement, with consideration given to preventing the piccolo counterpoint degenerating into incoherence at the faster speed one sometimes encounters. I was at the same time disappointed that Xian Zhang once again inserted a couple of unauthorised pauses into the headlong torrent of the finale (after bars 60 and 149); as I commented previously, “I realise the desire to make certain that the quiet entries immediately afterwards are not overhung with reverberation, but it does rob the music of its relentless onward drive which should not really be interrupted until the appearance of the ‘Fate’ theme like a spectre at the feast.”

One point at which I thought I did detect a change in Xian Zhang’s approach to the symphony occurred in the first movement, at the point where the main theme returns over a tick-tocking timpani ostinato (at least I didn’t notice it last year). Tchaikovsky here marks the score Ben sostenuto leading after ten bars to an instruction of Poco a poco stringendo; the passage occurs twice, beginning at bars 134 and 313. On both occasions the conductor overrode the composer’s instructions to maintain the existing tempo, beginning the gradual acceleration almost immediately; this may give a sense of ‘something doing’ but it surely robs the music of the sense of calm repose rising to a climax which was clearly what Tchaikovsky seems to have expected at this juncture. But there was plenty of excitement here and throughout nonetheless, and the acceleration into the final bars of the symphony brought cheers from a capacity audience. I am sure that future performances from this conductor and orchestra will prove equally exhilarating.

The concert had opened with more Tchaikovsky in the shape of the Polonaise from his near-contemporary opera Eugene Onegin, a performance that possessed similar virtues of clear and precise poise, dancing gleefully and somewhat heartlessly on its way – or was that simply awareness of the movement’s place in the action of the drama? But for me the real highlight of this concert came in the form of the concerto, a rapt and superlatively controlled performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with Chloë Hanslip as soloist.

We last heard Barber’s masterpiece in this hall almost exactly three years ago, when Elena Urioste gave a performance which I described then as looking at the score with fresh eyes. Chloë Hanslip was less unconventionally quick in the opening movement, and she and the conductor allowed the melodies in the strings to blossom with a positively Rachmaninov-like richness, and the orchestral detail sounded luxuriantly Straussian in its contrapuntal textures. The manner in which Hanslip floated her long held high notes over the orchestra was beautiful indeed, and prepared us for the gorgeous oboe solo which opens the slow movement and which was spun out lyrically by Hannah Morgan, deliciously and affectionately phrased. The perturbation beneath the surface was superbly realised by all concerned and the return of the opening material was perfectly judged; after which the hustle and bustle of the perpetuum mobile finale was every bit as exciting as could be desired.

This concert made a superb opening to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales season, and the orchestra seem to be well on form after the summer break. The forthcoming series of concerts at this venue are set to include a batch of Welsh Foundations which are set to include some most interesting novelties, and of course audiences can continue to experience the music from the BBC i-player or when the concerts are broadcast live. But it is good, too, to note that the live audiences for these afternoon programmes are growing.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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