Carlo Rizzi and the WNO Orchestra’s Sunday Afternoon Concert in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov, Bruch, Mendelssohn: Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Welsh National Opera Orchestra / Carlo Rizzi (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 27.1.2019. (PCG)

Carlo Rizzi

MendelssohnThe Hebrides Overture

Max BruchScottish Fantasia

Rachmaninov – Symphony No.2

The pattern of the current international season at St David’s Hall, with most of the orchestral concerts reverting to the tried-and-trusted pattern of overture-concerto-symphony, seems to have been vindicated by the sheer size of the audience for this Sunday afternoon concert; in previous years attendances for events in this time slot have been patchy. The listeners were also clearly enthusiastic about the opportunity to hear Carlo Rizzi conducting symphonic repertory with the orchestra he directed in the capital during his two periods as director of the Welsh National Opera between 1992 and 2008. His rapport with the players was clearly demonstrated in three performances of what might be regarded as old repertory warhorses which fizzled with life and excitement.

The opening of Fingal’s Cave was a very romantic interpretation indeed. No hint here of the classical restraint so fashionable in some Mendelssohnian quarters nowadays. A big group of strings comprising violins was split antiphonally left and right across the stage, with the cellos and violas inserted between them. This paid dividends, as it so often does, in all three of the works in this programme, even when the effect of a solid block of violins on the left of the stage is sacrificed. The clarity of the writing in both the Mendelssohn and Rachmaninov was palpable.

Alexander Sitkovetsky brought many moments of enchantment to his performance of the Bruch Scottish Fantasy even when the work itself has its moments of stasis. The finale with its rondo theme based on Scots wha hae seems to come and go in fits and starts. In a spoken introduction Carlo Rizzi drew attention to Bruch’s featured use of the harp, but despite its unconventional placement in the body of the strings the sound of the instrument was somewhat blunted. That is the fault of the composer’s richness of scoring in the middle register, rather than the playing of Katherine Thomas. As an encore, Sitkovetsky gave us a perfectly poised account of a Bach’s Sarabande from the D minor Partita, making the complex double-stopping sound easy and natural. Thanks also to the soloist for telling the audience beforehand what he was about to play!

After the interval, Rizzi conducted a fiery performance of Rachmaninov’s most popular symphony. He gave us the score at full length (although without the repetition of the exposition in the opening movement) and completely vindicated the advantage of hearing the work complete without the vicious cuts inflicted upon it during its early years. Here again the placement of the violins brought freshness to the work. Their unison soaring lyrical lines in the slow movement were entirely devoid of the sense of romantic slush that can give Rachmaninov’s critics so much scope for sarcastic comment. One minor glitch apart, the orchestral playing (and the score is by no means easy to perform with its syncopated accompaniment figurations) was superb, especially in the scintillating scherzo movement. Rizzi, always a conductor noted for his fleetness of foot, took no hostages in the finale either. He piled on the pressure excitingly without any noticeable sacrifice of clarity. This indeed was an excellent symphonic outing by an orchestra that has not always sounded totally comfortable in this hall. It was rightly cheered to the rafters by the audience.

Might I perhaps put in a complimentary word regarding the programme books provided for their orchestral concerts by the Welsh National Opera? These are rather different from the usual material provided by the hall for their international season, featuring as they do superbly chosen colour illustrations and portraits of the composer. The short essays on the works, invariably informative and wide-ranging in scope, are a model of their kind. They are also provided with full parallel translations into Welsh. That makes it all the more perplexing that nobody seems to take credit for any of this, which shows a becoming sense of modesty but is otherwise inexplicable. Nonetheless congratulations are definitely in order. Take a bow.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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