United Kingdom Beethoven, Liszt and Dvořák: Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Hallé Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 7.10.2016. (PCG)
Dvořák – The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op.109
Liszt – Piano Concerto No 2 in A, S125
Beethoven – Symphony No 6 in F, Op.68 ‘Pastoral’
In a brief spoken introduction to the second half of this concert, Sir Mark Elder drew the attention of the audience to the novel disposition of the string forces for the Hallé performance of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony – not only the welcome division of the violins to the left and right of the conductor, but also a distribution of the cellos and basses around the centrally placed violas. While the antiphonal placement of the violins is indeed essential if the treatment of the counterpoint is to be properly conveyed to the audience, that for the cellos and basses (who are not divided in Beethoven’s score) seemed less immediately urgent; and Sir Mark explained this by his desire to obtain a proper sense of “sonority” in what he described as the “perfect acoustic” of Cardiff’s St David’s Hall. Now I know many performers (myself included) will find this description of the quirks of the hall surprising, with its problems of audibility from one side of the stage to the other, but it certainly seemed here that the orchestra had the perfect measure of the acoustic; and the resonance and firmness of the violin tone decried the objection which I have heard raised from other quarters that the division of the players across the platform causes problems in the hall. The concern for sonority also might seem surprising in the context of modern concerns for “historical accuracy” which seem to regard the matter of internal orchestral balance with an almost cavalier attitude; but Sir Mark, no stranger to period instrument performance, is surely right to treat the symphony as an early example of romantic music rather than a purely classical (and decorative) piece. He certainly made it work in that manner, with grand climaxes in the final section setting the seal on a performance which looked forward to Berlioz and Liszt rather than back to the purely picturesque – as Beethoven himself said, “more an expression of feeling than tone painting.”
This performance was the crowning conclusion of a concert in which soloist, orchestra and conductor all covered themselves with glory. We opened with a commendable rarity in the shape of Dvořák’s symphonic poem The Golden Spinning Wheel, one of a set based on highly gruesome ballads by Karl Erben. Indeed this score is the most gruesome of the lot, with a plot revolving around murder and mutilation (including, extremely oddly, the removal of the heroine’s feet) which is hardly redeemed by a highly contrived ‘happy ending’. Indeed the music which Dvořák provided is pretty cheerful even in its most horrendous passages – there are sections of Rusalka which pack more sense of evil than this – and the score as a whole makes for a most enjoyable curtain-raiser to a concert. We really should hear more of these pieces – a performance in this hall a couple of seasons ago of The Noon Witch raised hopes that they may be making their way slowly into the repertory. The Golden Spinning Wheel is a long work – the Simrock score makes provision for cutting of some material in the central section, rightly resisted here – but the performance never outstayed its welcome. The busy string writing, which could easily sound scrappy in the wrong hands, was marvellous delineated.
So too was the equally busy piano writing in Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto, which has become something of a Benjamin Grosvenor speciality over the years. The performance was strongly bound together even during the most disparately contrasted sections of Liszt’s single movement, and the playing was faultless throughout. One’s only possible quibble might tentatively be raised about the balance given to the solo cello, partly concealed behind the piano lid from where I was sitting; but that again might well have sounded differently in another part of the hall. The audience rightly cheered both soloist and orchestra to the rafters.
This was the opening concert in the St David’s Hall International Concert season for 2016-17, and a most exciting start to that season it made. It was pleasing to note that the programme, a skilful mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar, had attracted a near-capacity audience. We don’t seem to have heard ‘The Hallé’ (as they now describe themselves) in Cardiff for quite some time now; hopefully we will have a return visit before too long.
Paul Corfield Godfrey