BBC NOW’s Laudable Musical Odyssey Continues with an Excursion into 20th Century Exile

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tales of Travel, 2: Annelien van Wauwe (clarinet), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Alexandre Bloch (conductor). BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 28.4.2017. (PCG)

Stravinsky Danses concertantes
Hindemith – Clarinet Concerto
Rachmaninov – Symphony No.3 in A minor (1938 revision)

Earlier this month I commented with approval on the policy of BBC Wales in presenting their series of short ‘themed’ concerts over the past few years. This concert continued their exploration of the theme of ‘travel’ – a theme which surely could yield innumerable valuable insights into the neglected works of many different composers. Here we heard the music of three European composers who emigrated to America during the period between the World Wars; and while the final concert in the season will highlight the work of those who fled to America to escape racial or political persecution, here we encountered three exiles who simply sought to protect themselves and their families from the policies of governments with whom they profoundly disagreed. But although their ‘travel’ was a common factor, the music that they composed constituted a programme full of variety of styles and indeed appeal.

Stravinsky’s Danses concertantes were written originally as a purely concert work, but the balletic titles given to the individual sections of the score give an indication that the composer had ideas of stage presentation which were clearly revealed in the sometimes fragmentary nature of the musical development. It is one of the more approachable scores of Stravinsky’s neo-classical years, with plenty of fire and rhythmic bounce, and the small chamber forces employed here came across with clarity even with the heavily reduced number of strings. Stephen Johnson in his programme notes conceded that the music “may not be emotionally revealing” but in a performance like this it remained involving.

The same may be said for the performance of Hindemith’s concerto for clarinet, which in places can lapse into the sort of arid academicism that could so easily find its way into this composer’s work when inspiration ran short. The brief ostinato second movement is the most immediately appealing, although the slow movement which follows has moments of beauty and (in the recapitulation of the opening material) fantasy; but there are sections of the outer movements when, even given such commitment as shown to the score by soloist Annelien van Wauwe and conductor Alexandre Bloch, one does get the impression of a craftsman displaying his technical facility rather than a composer with something urgent to communicate. As a substantial encore, soloist and orchestra gave us a performance of the finale from Malcolm Arnold’s second clarinet concerto, and although that work has far less seriousness of purpose, it seized the involvement of the audience in a manner that Hindemith failed to achieve.

Rachmaninov, of course, invariably succeeds in grabbing an audience’s attention; and that is most especially the case when his Third Symphony (written in Switzerland but premièred in America) is given a performance of such intensity as Bloch and the orchestra gave us here. Oddly enough, the Rachmaninov symphony, a lament for the Russia that he had lost, has a much darker sense of foreboding than is to be found in the Stravinsky and Hindemith works; but the sheer forcefulness of the musical argument carries all before it. Leslie Hatfield positively broke the heart in her delivery of her violin solos, but the enthusiasm of the players throughout was overwhelming and in the acoustic of the Hoddinott Hall the results were magnificent. There is a temptation – I have succumbed to it myself – to underrate this symphony when compared to its larger-scale and indeed sprawling predecessor; but any such unworthy thoughts were abandoned in an experience like this. The conductor quite rightly had no truck with the (minor) excisions which Rachmaninov himself made in his recording, and we were given the score at full length complete with repeated exposition in the first movement. The division of the violins from left to right across the stage also paid dividends, as figures passed from firsts to seconds and back again in the manner that the composer clearly envisioned.

One thought which did occur to me regarding the theme for this series was the sheer applicability of the programmes to present day circumstances. Three weeks ago, we had a concert which related French composers to the world of the eastern Mediterranean; now we had a collection of works written by political refugees seeking asylum in the United States. I was assured by the BBC that no such political parallels were intended, and of course they could not have been at the time the programme was devised; but the issues we confront today are of course far from purely contemporary, and it is timely to be reminded of the perhaps more tolerant and understanding responses of earlier generations to those same issues. Like its predecessor in the series the concert was broadcast live on Radio 3, but it remains available on the BBC iPlayer during the course of the next month; and those who love Rachmaninov are urgently recommended to make every effort to catch this performance while they can. They will be in for a treat.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

1 thought on “BBC NOW’s Laudable Musical Odyssey Continues with an Excursion into 20th Century Exile”

  1. Regarding Hindemith’s Clarinet Concerto: ‘one does get the impression of a craftsman displaying his technical facility rather than a composer with something urgent to communicate’. Very well put!

    Despite its limitations, it was good to be given the chance to hear a live performance of Hindemith’s concerto. It was good, too, to see the soloist, Annalien van Wauwe, joining the audience for the second half to hear Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony. This was given a stupendous performance, proving that it’s every bit as good as Rachmaninov’s Second.


Leave a Comment