BBC NOW’s Kaleidoscopic Berlioz, Scintillating Rachmaninov – Hough and Zhang in Perfect Harmony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berlioz, Rachmaninov, Tan Dun: Stephen Hough (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Xian Zhang (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 5.5.2017 (PCG)

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Xian Zhang (c) Benjamin Ealovega/BBC

Tan Dun – Internet Symphony No 1 Eroica

Rachmaninov – Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini

Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique has from its very first appearance always been recognised as a pioneering work. In the nineteenth century (with the exception of those who regarded the score as the outpourings of a madman) admirers raved about the originality of the music, written a mere year after the death of Beethoven. Other critics pointed out that the symphony had been quite heavily revised after its première, so that what seemed like startling innovations may have been added at a later date. What they did not – and could not – know, since the relevant material has only come to light in the last fifty years, is that substantial portions of the composition actually predated the death of Beethoven: the march to the scaffold, the scene in the fields, and the idée fixe itself. In the 1960s Berlioz came to be admired by many among the avant-garde, and not only in the classical field; and the programme of the Symphonie fantastique, with its scenario of drug-induced hallucinations, could be seen as a forerunner of the psychedelic effusions of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Eight Miles High. In short, the Symphonie has long assumed the Protean shape of a piece that is re-interpreted by each new generation in the light of its own experience; but, at the same time, every performance has the obligation to at least attempt to capture the thrill of the new and unexpected. A routine run-through of the score simply is not enough.

In this performance, the Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Xian Zhang, came up trumps. Her commitment to the fiery music, her enthusiastic engagement with the score’s scenario (given in its full gory detail in the programme booklet) and her energetic visual presence on the podium, all brought the performance to full kaleidoscopic life. The orchestra responded with enthusiasm, ranging from the delicate distant oboe at the start of the Scène aux champs and the plangent clarinet at the end of the Marche au supplice to the clearly enunciated rattle of the strings playing with the wood of their bows during the witches’ sabbath of the final movement. The bass drum in that movement was so enthusiastic as to smother the final appearance of the Dies irae on the tubas and bassoons, and the bells could (as so often) have been an octave lower to the advantage of the music; but with these very minor quibbles this was a performance that left the audience cheering and baying for more. They could have had more – the repeats in the opening movement and the march were both omitted, which does have the disadvantage of curtailing the duration of these sections to their detriment – but given the headlong plunge of the onward momentum in the performance, this brought its own rewards.

The use of the plainchant Dies irae brings of course parallels with the other main work on this programme, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, where Rachmaninov literally quotes the melody in the seventh variation, setting it initially against the principal theme and returning to it often thereafter. In the experienced hands of Stephen Hough this was a performance which scaled the heights of perfection, everything in place and sparkling with infectious excitement and good humour. In his score Rachmaninov, obviously concerned with the sheer stamina required of a pianist who is rarely given any time to relax, indicates a couple of points where the soloist can fall silent and take a breather (in the fourteenth variation sacrificing an additional rhythmic counterpoint in order to do so); Stephen Hough rightly will have nothing to do with this namby-pamby concession to human weakness, and ploughs on regardless. His phrasing of the rubato in the famous eighteenth variation had great suppleness and feeling, and the warm orchestral response, if not echoing his rubato in every detail, had exactly the sense of relaxation that the music absolutely demands at this point. As an encore Stephen Hough gave a heartfelt performance of Debussy’s Claire de lune, announcing it to the audience in an almost apologetic manner which belied the warmth of his subsequent playing. As an exercise in communication this miniature was almost as thrilling as the phenomenal Rachmaninov that had preceded it; you could have heard a pin drop.

The programme had opened with Tan Dun’s Internet Symphony No 1, a brief five-minute work written originally to be played by an orchestra auditioned over the internet, and really far too insubstantial to be given the ‘symphonic’ soubriquet. The piece really is a free fantasia on the principal theme of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (hence the subtitle Eroica) scored in the manner of a Hollywood Western and contrasted with more oriental episodes featuring reams of tuned percussion and whooping glissando horns. It is all pleasant enough if a bit insubstantial, and the audience – perhaps expecting something less readily approachable – responded enthusiastically.

The performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio Cymru, and the whole programme is to be repeated the following night on BBC Radio 3 in a concert relay from the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea. It will well repay listeners on either channel or via the BBC iPlayer. Now that Xian Zhang has demonstrated her ability in orchestral showpieces like this, it will be a pleasure to look forward to her ‘take’ on other scores in forthcoming concerts. Thomas Søndergård as Principal Conductor of the BBC NOW presumably has Mahler and the Scandinavians sewn up, but how about letting her loose in some French (or even British) scores? Her sense of energy and colour would have a real opportunity to shine.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

1 thought on “BBC NOW’s Kaleidoscopic Berlioz, Scintillating Rachmaninov – Hough and Zhang in Perfect Harmony”

  1. Xian Zhang has a magical combination of talent and charisma. The Cardiff audience is crazy about her – she may become a huge star.

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