BBC NOW Opens Season with Meticulous but Electrifying Firebird Performance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Ibert: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Emily Beynon (flute), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 13.10.2016. (PCG)

DebussyPrélude à l’après-midi d’une faune

Ravel – Shéhérazade

Ibert – Flute Concerto

StravinskyThe Firebird

For the opening of their season at St David’s Hall the BBC National Orchestra of Wales featured the first of three concerts which are to include the three early Diaghilev ballets by Stravinsky. In this performance the complete score of The Firebird was coupled with three other pieces by French composers from the impressionist and post-impressionist eras. In fact this was the second time in which we have been given the complete ballet in this hall during the last eighteen months, since in February 2015 the Philharmonia had included it in a concert which I described at the time as an “experience to die for.” In that performance Esa-Pekka Salonen had set a rapid pace from the outset, with a blistering whirlwind of an Infernal Dance. Here Thomas Søndergård took a more deliberate and atmospheric view, which not only allowed the players to really observe Stravinsky’s instruction for an increased speed in the latter stages of the dance, but also paid dividends at many other points. Indeed Søndergård, as so often in his performances, brought to the listener’s attention details which frequently go for nothing, such as the gently piercing solo cello harmonics in the Lullaby which usually find themselves subsumed into the flute line which they occasionally double. Similarly Stravinsky’s extravagant demands in terms of scoring were fully complied with; we had three harps as requested (Salonen had made do with two), and the mere eleven bars for muted Wagner tubas in the wings which Stravinsky introduces at Kaschei’s entrance. The fact that this effect went for very little (the notes are almost all doubled by onstage brass) was the composer’s fault rather than the conductor’s or the players’. The three isolated trumpets, placed at the rear of the choir stalls, also made their full impact when they returned at the end of the closing scene. The addition of these players brought the complement of the orchestra to over one hundred, and the sheer weight of sound was hugely impressive. The result may not have been as corruscatingly exciting as with Salonen last year, but Søndergård’s careful and meticulous approach had solid virtues of its own and the results were no less electrifying in consequence. It is surprising that a score so carefully and meticulously notated can yield such differing interpretations – a measure of the care with which Stravinsky approached his first major orchestral work.

In the first half of the concert a similarly conscientious approach brought similar dividends in three very distinct works all of which featured the flute in a prominent role. At the beginning of Debussy’s famous Prélude Søndergård allowed Matthew Featherstone to set a freely rhapsodic pace, doux et espressif as the composer requested, and the results were exquisite with none of the sense of conventional pacing which can sometimes undermine the atmosphere of pastoral laziness which should surely subsume the music. Again the sense of balance within the orchestra was sublime, with Debussy’s antique cymbals at the end justly observed – neither too prominent nor allowing themselves to be subsumed into the texture. The results were redolent of summer heat, and Matthew Featherstone again provided an exquisite counterpoint to the voice in the second of Ravel’s Scheherazade songs, a ‘flûte enchantée’ indeed. Here again, as one would expect, Sarah Connolly was a tower of strength, encompassing the higher notes with ease and with a clarity of diction that ideally illustrated Tristan Klingsor’s heady poetry. (Full marks, too, to the BBC for providing full French text and translation, so decidedly necessary in music that gives full weight to the words.) Connolly really should record this work, which suits her like a glove. Her oriental-looking velvet dress was a delight too.

If there was any weakness at all in this superlative programme, it came with Ibert’s lively but garrulous Flute Concerto. Not that any blame should attach to the superb flute playing of Emily Beynon, who sustained her long-breathed lines with character and poise. But after the acerbic opening bars Ibert seems rarely to probe far beneath the surface sparkle or smoothly flowing cantilena, and the sense of sheer revolving triplet repetition in the finale can outstay its welcome.  Beynon and Søndergård took advantage of the composer’s marked Coupure facultative here (trimming 48 bars), but this cut unbalances the proportions of the movement and landed us rather quickly in the cadenza with Ibert’s ill-advised instruction that four notes should be played as an echo in flute harmonics, a hazardous procedure which predictably caused problems. A similar instruction for the final note of the slow movement was rightly ignored. In his programme note Richard Langham Smith made large claims on behalf of this concerto – ‘one of the very best of 20th century flute concertos’ – but it seems to me that there are a good many more deserving candidates for this accolade. Never mind, it served to break up the impressionist haze of the other works on the programme and brought the first half of the concert to a scintillating conclusion.

It is clear that the orchestra remain on superb form, and the very full audience (at least from where I was sitting) were rightly enthusiastic, cheering the players – many of them rightly accorded solo bows by Søndergård – to the rafters. The concert is available on the BBC iPlayer.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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