The BBC NOW Season Opens with Unfamiliar Choice of Works

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Franck, Takemitsu, Milhaud, Honegger, d’Indy: Peter Moore (trombone), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Kazuki Yamada (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 29.9.2017. (PCG)

Franck – Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne
Takemitsu – Fantasma/Cantos II
Milhaud – Concertino d’hiver
Honegger – Pastorale d’été
d’Indy – Jour d’été à la montagne

This concert, comprised five works with a seasonal theme, including two substantial French works by César Franck and his pupil Vincent d’Indy. While d’Indy’s Jour d’été à la montagne from 1905 is one of the composer’s better-known works, the Franck piece was the composer’s first orchestral composition written in 1847, and was never published or performed during his lifetime. To a large extent it was overshadowed by Liszt’s similarly titled symphonic poem, written a couple of years later. It was the first of Liszt’s thirteen pieces which introduced the concept of the symphonic poem to general notice, although it was originally designated simply as a “symphony”. Like Liszt’s work, Franck’s piece draws inspiration from the 1831 poem by Victor Hugo. It prefigures his employment of a single theme which binds the whole together, but otherwise it sounds very little like the Franck we know from his later works. It divides the strings into multiple sections in a manner that anticipates the techniques of the impressionists, and uses reiterated figurations which surprisingly suggest early Sibelius. Indeed, it gives the decided flavour of a work which could have been written fifty years later, and one passage even sounds like an earlier version of the orchestral prelude to Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. Franck’s use of the percussion, with bass drum and cymbals shackled together on nearly every occasion, sounds primitive and naïve. On the other hand, his use of extended solos for clarinet and flute, beautifully delivered by Robert Plane and Matthew Featherstone, is similarly unexpected, and of the contrapuntal Franck familiar from his later works there is little evidence. Kazuki Yamada conducted the sometimes repetitive textures with some speed (the atmospheric opening could advantageously have been slower), clearly concerned to minimise any effect of monotony. One suspects that if Franck had ever revised the score, he might have made some abridgement; but it is a fascinating work nonetheless.

Takemitu’s 1994 semi-concerto for trombone and a reduced orchestra has, as one expects with this composer, a plethora of rhapsodic orchestral effects which he envisaged as an impression of a walk through a Japanese garden. But beautiful as the writing is, again one gains the suspicion of material being extended beyond its ideal length, and there is no real sense of formal or rhythmic variety until the opening material returns at the end. On a few occasions, the orchestra seemed prepared to launch into a dance-like accompaniment which never quite materialised, but the playing was superb, not least by Peter Moore (although the pause during the cadenza while he changed mutes was over-extended).

After the interval, the Milhaud concertino (with the orchestra now reduced to strings only) was more conventional, with two brief neo-classical movements surrounding a slower and more rhapsodic central section which had moments of real lyrical beauty. Indeed, in form the work reminded me somewhat of Finzi’s clarinet concerto, with the heartfelt slow material tending to overshadow the outer sections; and the sense of jollity which the composer seemed to be seeking lacked the essential light-hearted feel which would have been more effective. The work was written as part of a set of four concertos inspired by the seasons of the year, but it never really conveyed the sense of winter implied by the title. The concertino was followed by a real gem from the school of “Les Six”: Honegger’s 1920 Pastorale d’été, beautifully inflected by the chamber orchestral textures conjured up by the woodwinds, horn and strings.

By contrast, d’Indy’s three-movement suite employs the full forces of a romantic symphony orchestra, complete with two harps and an oddly prominent part for solo piano in addition to the more expected elaborate subdivisions of the strings. The opening sequence, depicting dawn, combines the sense of stillness we encounter in Debussy’s La mer with birdsong which anticipates the similar effects in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë. At other times, the music erupts into lively dance rhythms which conjure up similar impressions to those found in Respighi’s evocations of nature in his Roman trilogy, and the treatment of the orchestra is often very exciting. In the final movement this gradually calms down into a haunting evocation of nightfall, with the string divisions reducing some lines to solo parts for individual instruments. The programme note by Richard Bratby interestingly (and correctly) draws parallels with Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, although d’Indy’s writing lacks the sheer overwhelming majesty and power that we find in his German contemporary’s work. But we really should hear more d’Indy in the concert hall; his Istar is a work of stunning originality, and this same orchestra gave a magnificent broadcast performance of the final act from his opera Fervaal some years ago.

Before the concert started, I overheard a number of comments about the vastly improved standards of the BBC programmes for these Hoddinott Hall concerts this year. Since I had complained on a number of occasions last year about the flimsy nature of the programme sheets provided, I was pleased indeed that the BBC management had seemed to take note of my persistent grumbling and that we were now, for example, given a full list of the players (although the second harpist in the d’Indy was not credited). Many thanks for this — and for the fact that more contemporary music is now apparently scheduled for the concerts in the New Year, which I hope will include some works by living Welsh composers.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and will be available on the BBC iPlayer, as usual, for the next thirty days. None of the scores are over-familiar, and all will repay a further listen. Two further interestingly “themed” concerts — with similarly intriguing programmes — are scheduled for later this autumn.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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