Tales of Travel Season Culminates in Rare Outing for Korngold Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartók, Prokofiev, Korngold: Beatrice Rana (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales /B Tommy Andersson (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 23.6.2017. (PCG)

BartókHungarian Sketches (orchestral version)
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op.26
Korngold – Symphony in F sharp major Op.40

Although the three composers featured in this concert, the last in the BBC NOW series Tales of Travel (and the last in the 2016-17 BBC season), had a common bond in their having at one time or another taken refuge from the political turmoil of Europe in the United States, the differences between them were as notable as their similarities. Bartók, whose past association with Communists in his native Hungary had rendered him the subject of political suspicion to the Fascist regime in Budapest, fled to America fully intending to return after the war but in the event died there. Prokofiev, whose exile from Russia was largely a matter of personal choice, had already returned to the Soviet Union by the time that Bartók had crossed the Atlantic. Korngold, managing to flee his native Austria just in time to avoid arrest and almost certain death at the hands of the Nazis, returned to Europe after the war but found that his music, now able to be performed once more, was no longer welcome to the new cultural elite that was rising in Germany. All three of the works on this programme were actually written, or largely written, in Europe. And all three coincidentally open with prominent clarinet solos, played with his usual ebullience by Robert Plane.

Bartók freely admitted that he orchestrated his Hungarian Sketches “for the money” and his anxiety to ensure performances extended to the provision of easier alternative passages in some woodwind phrases such as the extraordinary high bassoon solo in the engagingly titled movement Slightly tipsy. The players here rightly scorned such condescension. The work has been more generally known as Hungarian Pictures, a translation of the German title Ungarische Bilder, but the short pieces are really sketches rather than anything more substantial, from the atmospheric opening to the folk melody of the final Swineherd’s Dance. They made a pleasurable curtain-raiser to the heavier works that were to follow.

Cardiff audiences had heard a live performance of Prokofiev’s third piano concerto just over twelve months ago from Noriko Ogawa at St David’s Hall, a performance which I described at the time as one which “simply defied any adverse criticism.” It is therefore a matter of considerable commendation that I can report that this traversal of the score by Beatrice Rana had nothing to fear from any comparison. She had every note of the solo part (and there are a great many of them) firmly under control, and she and the orchestra under B Tommy Andersson struck sparks off each other throughout. The contrasts between sections, and the disparate variations of the second movement, were superbly pointed in a way that made this concerto much more than the simple display piece it can become.

But the real meat of the programme came in the performance of the Korngold Symphony written by its composer during his attempt to resurrect his career in Europe and first performed in an apparently disastrously under-rehearsed Austrian radio broadcast in 1954. It did not make an appearance in the concert hall until 1972 (fifteen years after the composer’s death) when Rudolf Kempe gave it with the Munich Philharmonic (a rendition still available on CD). After that it languished again until the appearance of a number of new recordings in the 1990s, and although the BBC made no such claim I strongly suspect that this performance may have been the British concert première of the work. It certainly is one of those pieces that does not play itself, presenting considerable difficulties for the individual players and for the conductor who has to balance the multifarious textures produced by a large orchestra. The very opening of the symphony, a brittle theme featuring tuned percussion, sounds suspiciously like the composer in the 1950s attempting to display his modernist credentials; and the rifting themes on horns, one of them a quotation from Korngold’s film score for Elizabeth and Essex, do harken back to the era of the 1930s. But towards the end of the movement these various elements begin to cohere (and the symphonic form is always clearly discernible) and after that the music really takes off. There is a turbulent scherzo, bubbling with life and surrounding a still “tear-stained” central trio; and then there follows a slow movement of quite simply superlative stature. It revolves around a theme consisting of the first three notes of the Dies irae plainchant (surely a pure coincidence) before developing into a lushly romantic string melody which suited the players of this orchestra down to the ground. The movement then becomes more troubled, seeming almost to threaten to peter out in despair, before the strings return to lend a sense of benediction to the movement. After this the finale begins almost unbearably light-heartedly, with a jaunty trumpet theme that breathes the atmosphere of Janacek’s Sinfonietta and surrounds reminiscences of music from the earlier movements which tend to dominate the more optimistic material that surrounds them. The listener can hear echoes of Strauss, Mahler, Ravel and even Stravinsky; but Korngold is by no means just a musical magpie, and there are also elements that reflect his own personality as evidenced by his earlier operas from his career in Europe in the 1920s. These elements may well have missed the attention of reviewers in the post-war era, but it hardly excuses the critical disdain with which the symphony was initially received. B Tommy Andersson clearly relished the score, and made out a strong case that we should hear it far more often (it would make a superb impression at the Proms). Those who heard the live broadcast of the concert, and indeed those who missed it, should make every effort to make the acquaintance of the symphony while it remains available for the next month on the BBC i-Player.

The afternoon concert did not attract a very full audience, but those who were there clearly enjoyed themselves substantially. This has really been a very good season for this orchestra, who continue to delight their audiences with performances of world-class standard. I look forward with anticipation to their next season, which promises some real highlights. However, I must note that, with the exception of a newly commissioned work from their composer in residence Huw Watkins and the usual workshops next spring, there is a regrettable lack of Welsh contemporary music in the currently advertised Cardiff programmes; and I very much hope that this will be rectified when the schedule for the Hoddinott Hall after Christmas is announced.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

2 thoughts on “Tales of Travel Season Culminates in Rare Outing for Korngold Symphony”

  1. This was certainly not the British concert premiere of the Korngold. The BBC Phil under John Storgards played it at the Proms on 6 August 2013.

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  2. I was sure someone would correct me if I was wrong – which is why I employed such tentative words as “suspect” and “may”. I duly stand corrected, with my thanks to Mr Zoob. I note that a review of that Proms performance described it as its “first Proms outing” which might in its turn suggest that there had been previous UK concert performances, too.

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