United Kingdom Stravinsky, Wagner, Mahler: Roderick Williams (baritone), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Mark Wigglesworth (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 9.2.2017. (PCG)
Wagner – Tannhäuser: Overture and Venusberg Music
Mahler – A selection of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Stravinsky – Petrushka (complete ballet)
Of the three ballets that Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the period immediately before the First World War, and which the BBC National Orchestra of Wales has so enterprisingly programmed to be heard throughout the current season, Petrushka is somewhat of the odd man out. While the other two ballets – The Firebird and The Rite of Spring – take their scenarios from the prehistoric and mythical realm of Russian paganism, Petrushka with its fairground setting is a much more ‘domestic’ score with fewer opportunities for the grand gesture. This is in part explained by the origins of the music in a work designed for solo piano and orchestra, but this does not mean that the work is in any way easier to play or to ‘bring off’ in the concert hall. Rather the contrary: because Stravinsky’s close observation of detailed points in the action, and their reflection in the musical cues he provides, require the most careful handling if the music is not to sound either bittily fragmented or unmotivated. At the same time the conductor has to ensure that the dramatic intentions of the orchestral gestures are fully realised. Mark Wigglesworth, using Stravinsky’s original and more extravagant orchestration of 1911 (two celesta players), concentrated on the purely musical aspects of the score, sometimes at the expense of dramatic effects like the tambourine smash as the puppet’s neck is broken, here decidedly underplayed. But the use of the colourful original score was fully justified in the characterful playing of the orchestra, which brought out a myriad touches of incidental detail frequently obscured in recordings. The piano too, sometimes featured in a quasi-soloist role, was fully integrated into the whole as the composer clearly intended.
There was plenty of colour and contrast as well in the performance of the Wagner excerpts from Tannhäuser which opened the concert. What we were given here was the composer’s final thoughts on the subject, with the overture truncated (shorn of the final recapitulation of the ‘Pilgrims’ March’) and leading directly into the 1861 Paris version of the ballet music which Wagner added over fifteen years after the original production of the opera. There was plenty of excitement here in the frenzied eroticism of the music to accompany the rise of the curtain, a passage where Wagner’s depiction of sexual passion even surpasses his orgasmic evocation in Tristan und Isolde (an opera which the composer had completed some years before his work on the Venusberg music, even though it had remained unperformed at the time of the Paris presentation of Tannhäuser). The long post-orgasmic satiation, which Wagner conjures up in the closing pages of the revised score, suffered here from the substitution of woodwind for the offstage chorus required in theatrical presentations. But this was an expedient which the composer endorsed for concert performances, and the sense of irradiated warmth was palpable nonetheless.
Between these two super-charged performances Roderick Williams presented us with five of the more substantial songs drawn from Mahler’s settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The orchestral players once again responded splendidly to the composer’s characterful scoring, even when his requirement for extremely quiet playing (in, for example, the opening and closing bars of ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’) was sometimes more palpable than might have been desirable. This was particularly unfortunate in that the baritone’s lyrical style of delivery, with plenty of subtlety, simply lacked the sheer volume and power that was frequently needed to ride over Mahler’s heavier passages. In ‘Revelge’ the score on a number of occasions asks for the voice to be “very loud” – and this was simply lacking here. Even from my seat in the stalls there were phrases that were almost totally obscured, and from further back in the hall the situation might well have been worse. Now, on other occasions in this venue the same singer has shown little difficulty is projecting his voice over substantial forces; and I suspect here that the problems were largely of Mahler’s own creation. The composer, with his wealth of experience as an operatic conductor, seems simply to have been over-optimistic in the period 1892-1901 regarding the power of a singer to make the voice carry when the instrumental forces are not recessed into an orchestra pit; and while this causes no problems when the songs are given on record, it causes real difficulties in live performances – a situation which Mahler himself seems to have recognised when in his later works for solo voice and orchestra (such as Kindertotenlieder in 1904) he took considerably greater care to ensure that the singer was not overwhelmed.
Roderick Williams very sensibly avoided the temptation to force his voice, concentrating instead on a perceptive projection of the words. (I have encountered performances where more heroically-scaled voices have been forced to bellow, with equally unsatisfactory results in the loss of nuance and point.) The same concert programme was repeated the following night in Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall, and was then broadcast live. Listening to that relay – in a more naturally sympathetic acoustic – confirmed the essential rightness of the singer’s approach to the musical setting, even though this may well have been the consequence of sympathetic placement of the microphones. The balance of the wind, and the brass in particular, were more recessed, and the ironic delivery of ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ and ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’ could be much more clearly appreciated in consequence. Similarly the closing bars of ‘Der Tambourg’sell’, almost totally inaudible in Cardiff, came across with the dying fall which Mahler clearly indicated in the score.
The performance under consideration here is due for a later relay on Radio 3, and I suspect that again carefully judged recording balances may well render these performances more satisfactory than they actually were in the hall. The programme, with fully twenty pages of editorial material including full texts and translations, was a model of what such presentations should be. It was disappointing to observe that St David’s Hall, which has been pleasingly attracting substantial audiences during concerts earlier in the season, seemed to be less than half full on this occasion with huge swathes of empty seating in the upper reaches of the house. It was admittedly a very cold night, which may have discouraged listeners from venturing out of doors, but they will have missed another superb performance from this orchestra, who rarely seem to have put a foot wrong during the current season.
Paul Corfield Godfrey