BBC NOW Excel in Stravinsky’s Rite whilst Bavouzet’s Ravel was ‘Too Literal’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Ravel, Stravinsky: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 8.6.2017. (PCG)

Prokofiev – Scythian Suite

Ravel – Piano Concerto in G

Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

There was a time – and not so long ago, either – when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring posed a challenge close to insuperable to even the most renowned of orchestras; one has only to listen to the composer’s own first recording of the score to hear blatant errors of execution which nonetheless were considered inconsequential enough to justify the issue of the recording on 78s. But in the period – now just over a century – since the first performances of this pioneering work, orchestras have not only managed to conquer the difficulties of the ballet score, but also to treat it almost as an orchestral showpiece demonstrating their abilities to meet the most formidable of challenges. There is almost a danger indeed that the music may come to seem too easy, too approachable, too devoid of problems – and by the same token to lose the sense of primitive ritual which is so essential to the distorted harmonies and rhythms than run through the very fibre of the notes themselves. That was most assuredly not a danger here. The orchestra triumphantly surmounted the most abstruse of difficulties, but at the same time the sense of challenges overcome and the sheer fierceness of the onslaught was not diminished in the slightest. As we have seen in his performances of other Stravinsky ballet scores with this orchestra, Thomas Søndergård relished the peculiarities of the composer’s scoring, bringing out individual lines that so often pass almost unnoticed in the general welter of sound. The prominent part for the alto flute, for example, so difficult to balance effectively, came across at all points, nowhere more startlingly so than in the passage where it doubles the piccolo clarinet two octaves below during the Spring Rounds. It was good to see the players John Hall and John Cooper receiving separate bows at the end, acknowledged by the audience with rapturous applause. But indeed all the players of the orchestra deserved such plaudits.

Individual elements in The Rite of Spring have of course re-surfaced in many scores since, but one of its first imitations came with Prokofiev’s ballet score Ala and Lolly, also commissioned by Diaghilev a couple of years later. In the event the ballet never reached the stage, and Prokofiev salvaged parts of the music he had composed in his Scythian Suite. The score lacks Stravinsky’s ostentatious rhythmic variety, and is in places in danger of sounding like the compilation of excerpts that it actually is. But in fact the music itself is very much of a piece with the iconoclastic works that Prokofiev composed during his period of exile from Russia before his return to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The composition is by intention ‘primitive’ in its insistent ostinato patterning, almost like a nightmarish anticipation of modern minimalism; the final sustained high B flat, held almost continually over forty bars by the violins, can seem almost like too much of a good thing. But elsewhere Prokofiev shows a lighter touch, most notably in the Night movement, a mysterious and chilly nocturne which looks forward to sections in the film music for Alexander Nevsky. His rich scoring for two harps, piano and celesta (all instruments curiously enough omitted from Stravinsky’s otherwise massive orchestra for The Rite) came across superbly in this well-judged and excitingly-paced performance.

The two spectacularly loud scores might, it could be thought, have resulted in a sense of strain from the heavily over-worked orchestra, especially given the fact that the whole programme was to be repeated the following night in Swansea; but in the event this was nowhere evident, and the two blockbusters were sensibly separated by the chiselled delicacy of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist. Oddly enough the sense of relaxation here resulted in some less than precise playing; the trumpet in the first movement was too backwardly balanced, and the experienced soloist allowed a couple of slips to pass in the slow movement. The delivery here by Bavouzet, too, seemed rather too literal and straight-laced for Ravel’s espressivo direction; and the return of the theme on the cor anglais later in the movement had more sense of give-and-take than we had heard earlier. Oddly, too, we had as an encore a complete recapitulation of the final movement; this was more precisely chiselled than it had been the first time round, but sounded more like a recording retake than a literal interpretation of the word encore.

The concert was recorded for transmission of BBC Radio Cymru the following day, and will be relayed at a later date on Radio 3. In the meantime the Swansea performance of the same programme is featured on Radio 3 as an evening concert on 15 June as part of BBC Music Day when it will more assuredly be worth the attention of listeners. The performances can also be accessed, of course, on the BBC iPlayer. We are perhaps sometimes inclined to take this valuable resource too much for granted, but allowing listeners to hear relays at times convenient to themselves is surely to be commended and treasured. Whilst on the subject of paying tribute, I should also mention that the next season with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales will be the last under their principal conductor Thomas Søndergård who will then be moving north to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. His presence in Cardiff will be sorely missed, and I very much hope that he will find time in his future schedule to return to Wales on a regular basis – not least to complete his cycle of the Mahler symphonies, where his keen ear for details so often overlooked has been so valuable over recent years.

Altogether this was a rousing and excellent conclusion to the orchestra’s 2016-17 season at this hall; and the enthusiastic audience nearly filled the auditorium to capacity, too.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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