United Kingdom Ravel, Prokofiev, Mozart: Thomas Zehetmair (violin), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 10.11.2016. (PCG)
Mozart – Idomeneo (1781): Overture
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No 2 in G minor, Op.63 (1935)
Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé (1912)
On a cold damp November evening, with hordes of apparently unsupervised children milling around the shopping centre in Cardiff to witness the turning on of the Christmas lights, it was a blessed relief to luxuriate in the warm Mediterranean sun that infuses Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé, especially so in a performance like this, where the orchestra gave their all for their conductor laureate Tadaaki Otaka making a welcome return to Cardiff and giving us a superbly paced and shaped performance. If I single out Matthew Featherstone’s flute for particular praise (the long solo towards the end moulded as expressively as I have ever heard it) this is not to gainsay the superb playing to be heard throughout, not least from Sasha Calin in her cruelly exposed high solo at the very opening of the atmospheric score.
Not that everything was quite perfect. The notorious passage during Lycéion’s attempted seduction of Daphnis for three flutes playing in harmonics over a rising horn arpeggio did not come off ideally, but then Ravel’s eccentric scoring is largely to blame for this. I recognise the composer’s desire to differentiate the scoring of this phrase on its recurring appearances, but he really set incredible problems for his players here. He also indicates in his score sections where the chorus are instructed to move from off stage to on stage, approaching and receding; and quite apart from the difficulties this would involve in a balletic performance, it is of course impossible to manage these effects on the concert platform. This meant, for example, that the very opening phrases for the chorus were a little too ‘present’ to the ear, not recessed enough into the texture. But the chorus throughout were a tower of strength, precise and clear even in passages which must have taxed their sense of pitch to the utmost (such as the long unaccompanied interlude leading into the second scene). More serious was the failure to recess the brass fanfares here, and separate out the piccolo and piccolo-clarinet solos during the famous dawn chorus of Sunrise. A few weeks ago, the BBC showed a commendable willingness to indulge Stravinsky’s similar effects in his Diaghilev ballet The Firebird, and it would have been even better had the sounds here not so obviously come from players seated within the orchestra. Minor quibbles, though, which hardly spoiled the evident enjoyment of the cheering audience.
The concert had begun with Mozart’s overture to Idomeneo, a decidedly odd choice even if Michael Garvey’s programme note cited the links with Greek myth which bound it to the Ravel ballet. This was big-band Mozart with a vengeance, having no truck with period performance styles, and it made an effective curtain raiser even if the Greek links were impossible to detect. It was followed by a performance of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, in which Thomas Zehetmair excelled both for his accuracy and his poise. The beautiful melody in the slow movement which anticipates in so many ways Romeo and Juliet was heavenly in its suspense, and the orchestra responded with rapture. The neo-classical outer movements were less effective and I am afraid that, as so often proves to be the case in performances of his concerto, they leave a suspicion that Prokofiev is operating to a degree on auto-pilot (a sense that one does not get, for example, in his first concerto). Soviet accusations of ’formalism’ do arise uncomfortably in places.
As an encore Zehetmair sprang a real surprise on the audience with the first movement of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1950 sonata for solo violin. I am pleased indeed to say it was not as much of a surprise as some encores we have had over the years, since the soloist announced in advance what he was going to play and even gave us the date of composition. I certainly had never encountered the score before, nor would I suggest had even one per cent of the audience. The piece proved to be less ostentatiously avant garde than many of the works by Zimmermann which were to follow over the following decade, and was short enough not to outstay its welcome. It certainly gave Zehetmair ample opportunity to demonstrate his superlative musicianship and technique.
The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be available on the BBC iPlayer worldwide for the next month. This series of concerts featuring major ballet scores commissioned by Diaghilev is proving to a delight indeed.
Paul Corfield Godfrey