United Kingdom Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov: Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Tomáš Hanus (conductor): BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 24.1.2018 (PCG)
Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier, Suite
Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade
Usually when two orchestras are featured together in the same concert, it is because their forces are being combined for a special occasion such as the performance of one of the massive scores of the late romantic era—maybe Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony or Mahler’s Eighth. Here, much more unusually, each orchestra was featured separately under the leadership of their own musical director in one half of the programme, an event designed to celebrate the 2018 Conference of the Association of British Orchestras. As such a special event, the concert would not normally call for critical comment, but the juxtaposition was nevertheless both instructive and illuminating.
In the first half we heard a suite prepared in 1945 from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier which the late Michael Kennedy in his programme note speculated may have been the work of the conductor Artur Rodziński, although the first performance was conducted by Hans Swarowsky in Vienna. The suite is quite distinct from the ‘waltz sequences’ from the opera which are perhaps more familiar. It concentrates instead on the central germ of the action: the Act One Prelude, the Presentation of the Rose, Ochs’s final scene from Act II, the Trio and a truncated version of the final Duet leading back to Ochs’s exit from Act III. Some of the juxtapositions jar somewhat (if Strauss himself had a hand in the assembly of the excerpts, he would surely have contrived smoother transitions?); even so, the results yield a respectable potted version of the whole, although it is odd that the longest single purely orchestral section of the score (the opening of Act III) is ignored entirely. In places the vocal lines are taken over by members of the orchestra, and at other points they are simply omitted. What was interesting was to find Tomáš Hanus treating the score as a purely instrumental work, sometimes stretching tempi beyond what might be feasible when singers were involved (and certainly more than I recall from his live performance of the complete opera last year). The results, especially in the slower passages such as the Presentation of the Rose and Trio, were extremely beautiful in their own right. Only the final exit scene for Ochs perhaps lacked the desirable sense of overweening vulgarity. The orchestra played superbly, although in the Prelude the priapic horns tended to dominate the yielding tones of the Marschallin in the strings (again, I recall the effect in the orchestra pit as being more equally balanced).
By contrast, Thomas Søndergård in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade after the interval achieved a similarly fresh approach to the score, but this time by virtue of allowing his excellent players freedom to give their own interpretation of the many soloistic opportunities that the composer allows them. Most effective of all was Jarosław Augustyniak, whose bassoon depiction of the beggar at the outset of the second movement was beautifully inflected and cheekily pointed—although there were plenty of fresh insights elsewhere, with one superb moment when Matthew Featherstone’s flute seemed to echo itself in repeated phrases. And Lesley Hatfield was of course a tower of strength as the solo violinist whose task it is to depict Scheherazade herself, rising with aplomb and deceptive ease to the highest ethereal notes in the final movement. Climactic passages, too, such as the depiction of the sea and Sinbad’s ship, had a full-bodied tone which displayed the strings of the orchestra at their finest. Interestingly, Søndergård played the first two movements without a break, although the score does not call for this; back in 2013, when the Moscow Radio Orchestra gave the work for the last time in Cardiff, they did the same thing. But the effect works well: it demonstrates the unusual manner in which the composer constructs the whole of this extended passage from what effectively is one single (although elaborately varied) theme depicting at various times Shahriar, Sinbad and the Kalendar Prince.
The very full audience, consisting as they did of a collection of presumably hard-bitten orchestral administrators from across the country, received the performances with rapturous applause. Home listeners will be pleased to learn that the whole concert is being relayed by Radio 3 on the afternoon of 26 January and will be available thereafter for a whole month of BBC iPlayer. Hopefully this broadcast will also include the perceptive if brief interviews of various figures from the Welsh music scene with Nicola Heywood Thomas.
Paul Corfield Godfrey