United Kingdom Dvořák, Mendelssohn, Beethoven: Henning Kraggerud (violin), Welsh National Opera Orchestra / Tomáš Hanus (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 14.1.2018. (PCG)
Beethoven – Overture Op.84, Egmont
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64
Dvořák – Symphony No.9 in E minor Op.95 B.178 (From the New World)
In the past I have commented on the poor attendances at several of the Sunday afternoon concerts scheduled as part of the St David’s Hall International Concert Series. I have speculated that these could be the result of Cardiff’s generally inadequate public transport links on Sundays, especially buses to the more outlying suburbs and towns up the valleys of South Wales; and these thoughts have been echoed by some heartfelt comments in response I have received from members of the public who would be keen to attend the events but found transport difficulties insuperable. But on a very cold January afternoon a decidedly respectable-sized audience were willing to turn out for this concert, even if some people obviously found it necessary to depart quickly at the end to make sure of their connections. It was good, too, to see a considerable number of young people in the audience who certainly seemed to enjoy themselves. A number of colleagues (in the Federation of Recorded Music Societies and elsewhere) have lamented the increasing age and frailty of those attending live concerts in their area. I have certainly not found this to be the case in Cardiff over recent years, which gives one some cause for hope in the future.
The concert reverted to the time-honoured traditional format of overture-concerto-symphony, and was none the worse for that. It was also, as conductor informed us at the beginning, in the nature of a memorial for the late conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra Jiři Bĕlohlávek, who had been something of a mentor for the young Tomáš Hanus. Hanus also contributed an autobiographical note to the programme. On the basis of this concert, I think that Bĕlohlávek would have had cause to be proud of his protégé, and in particular for his interpretation of the music of their fellow-Czech Dvořák whose New World Symphony here sounded far from the hackneyed old warhorse that it can sometimes seem.
The matter of repeats in the first movement of Dvořák symphonies has occasioned much debate over the years, with many conductors and critics contending that the composer only indicated these as a gesture of conventional procedure. In the case of the New World, however, his intentions are certainly not open to doubt, if only because Dvořák wrote a couple of linking bars to lead back to the repeat of the opening material. But Hanus here dispensed with it, and one can perhaps see why. The development section of the movement is relatively short, and with the repeat included one can get the impression of the same material being repeated three times in relatively short succession as the recapitulation returns. It can work if the players are prepared to adjust their performance to shed new insights onto the material each time it recurs; but Hanus and the orchestra in any event gave plenty of subtle nudges to the progress of the music, including details of phrasing and tempo that may not have been marked in the score but which Dvořák would fully have expected in performance.
What Dvořák would also have expected would have been the division of violins antiphonally left and right across the stage, as here. It paid real dividends in the give-and-take of the musical material as it passes from one section to another. Where it did occasion problems was at a couple of points in the finale, with the slashing offbeat chords and the triplet counterpoint to the restatement of the main rondo theme, both of which could have done with rather more weight. That could also have been assisted with the provision of platforms on the stage to elevate the woodwind slightly, although the individual players, presumably accustomed to playing in an orchestra pit, came across without difficulty in their many solo opportunities. Sarah Sprague’s delivery of the low flute solo was a delight, as indeed was the fresh and unsentimental cor anglais in the slow movement played by Lucie Sprague.
And other elements in the layout, with the percussion and double-basses swapping places and the latter strung out across the back of the orchestra, worked very well indeed. The overall sound was also excellent in the Beethoven overture which opened the programme, a solidly romantic interpretation with plenty of body and none of the problems of internal balance which can afflict performances on period instruments.
In the centre of the programme the number of strings were reduced for the performance of the Mendelssohn violin concerto, which lent a more classical air to what (we forget at our peril) was actually quite a revolutionary approach to concerto form. At the very outset I was slightly concerned that Henning Kraggerud’s tone might be slightly too small-scale, but no—he was simply obeying Mendelssohn’s specified piano marking (surprisingly few soloists do) and there was certainly no lack of strength, weight or body in his athletic playing later on. As in the Dvořák, Hanus allowed for some leeway of tempo especially in the first movement, and Kraggerud took full advantage of this to let us hear some really delicate phrasing as well as relishing the glorious melody of the slow movement. He must also be credited for his willingness to announce in advance what he was going to provide as an encore — so many performers neglect this — although he might have employed Hanus’s microphone (already there for his Bĕlohlávek tribute) since his voice did not permeate back far beyond the front rows of the stalls. I think he announced that he was playing a short piece by the Norwegian violinist-composer Ole Bull, a contemporary of Mendelssohn’s, and a charming contrast it made too.
I have also commented in the past on the merits of the programme notes by Hedd Thomas provided for these WNO concerts. His often-unexpected insights into the music are a constant source of pleasure, as are the well-selected illustrations. The portrait of the bewhiskered aristocrat Egmont, in full colour, was a particular delight especially as he looked so utterly unheroic. I would not agree with the writer that the motif which opens the scherzo of the New World Symphony was ‘borrowed from Beethoven’s Symphony No.9’ but I can see where the writer is coming from at least in noting the resemblance. I look forward with much anticipation to Hanus’s next concert in this season, another Sunday afternoon slot on 29 April.
Paul Corfield Godfrey