Intimations of Birdsong and Early Sibelius in a night of Czech Romanticism

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Suk, Mozart: Pavel Kolesnikov (piano), Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Tomáš Hanus (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 19.3.2017. (PCG)

SukSerenade for strings

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 20 K.466

Dvořák – Symphony No. 7, Op.70

Since Tomáš Hanus became Music Director of Welsh National Opera in August 2016, he has already made two appearances with the WNO Orchestra at St David’s Hall, although his first production as director of the company has yet to materialise. However, from his exciting Mahler ‘Resurrection’ last autumn and the concert under consideration here, it is clear that he has plenty of original ideas to share, some of which may not be totally in accordance with the composer’s score but all of which are perfectly defensible and indeed enhance the effect of the music. One example occurred at the opening of the scherzo in Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony. This is quite a conundrum for the conductor, with the composer contrasting 6/4 bars with two stresses to the bar and three stresses to the bar, and indeed sometimes combining the two in different parts of the orchestra – an effect which anticipates similar contrasts in later scores such as ‘Mercury’ from Holst’s Planets. Here Hanus added to the quirky effect with his hesitant approach to the opening bars which gave the whole movement a delightfully offhand manner. Just to prove that this was no fluke, he repeated the effect when the opening material recurred later in the movement.

Dvořák’s symphony is probably the most severe essay in the medium he ever composed, with positively Wagnerian overtones in the opening and closing movements which can easily become over-weighted. This problem was not totally resolved in the soaring coda of the finale, but Hanus’s adoption of a mysterious approach at the very beginning of the symphony brought a sense of anticipation of early Sibelius which was most effective as well as unexpected. He gained too from the division of his violins to the left and right of the stage, which helped to clarify the textures and made sense of Dvořák’s stereophonic deployment of his forces. There was no loss of weight in the string textures as a consequence, which goes to show that the acoustic of the hall does not require the reinforcement of violin tone resulting from the bunching of the players on the left of the platform.

The Czech theme of the evening was reinforced by the presence of the string serenade by Dvořák’s son-in-law Josef Suk which opened the concert. Suk’s marriage to Dvořák’s daughter was still some time in the future when the composer penned this delightful work, still overshadowed in the repertory by the string serenades of Tchaikovsky and Dvořák himself. The players clearly enjoyed making the acquaintance of the music, and a delightfully delicate touch was provided at the end of the slow movement where two solo violins combined like birdsong – Suk’s score certainly implies that this should be played by the full violin section, but Hanus’s amended reading made perfect sense. There was plenty of weight too in the more overtly emotional sections of the score, where Suk anticipates his later high romantic style.

The performance of Mozart’s K.466 Piano Concerto also fell firmly into the romantic tradition rather than the realm of the ‘period stylists’ who would relegate the score to the sphere of the fortepiano and vibrato-less playing on gut strings. The result again was exquisite, and Pavel Kolesnikov displayed a lightness of touch that fully realised the affectionate nature of the music. The use of Beethoven’s cadenzas (Mozart never wrote down any versions of his own) brought a distinct jolt – Beethoven’s style, with its abrupt and indeed brusque changes of tonality, could never be confused with Mozart’s – but it was interesting to hear them in this context. The pianist even provided an encore in the shape of the Chopin waltz in A minor, although it would have been nice if he could have announced to the audience what he was playing; I really don’t understand why performers are often so reluctant to provide this essential information, which leads to flustered whispering among listeners as they try to identify what it is they are hearing.

Nonetheless, this was a succulent piece of icing on the cake of a most enjoyable concert, one which whets the appetite for Hanus’s debut as the WNO Music Director with Der Rosenkavalier this summer. And it was a pleasure, too, to hear Kolesnikov, more renowned for his playing of Tchaikovsky (and indeed Chopin) in classical repertoire. It was such a pity that the audience was so sparse, with great swathes of the seating unoccupied even in the stalls; might one suggest that the innovation of St David’s Hall in scheduling concerts in their ‘international series’ for Sunday afternoons clearly has a deleterious effect on those travelling by public transport?

Paul Corfield Godfrey

1 thought on “Intimations of Birdsong and Early Sibelius in a night of Czech Romanticism”

  1. Paul Corfield Godfrey’s final comment is surely correct. I regularly travel to concerts in Cardiff by train from my home in Aberdare some twenty miles away but public-transport provision on Sundays is dire.


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