Judith Weir’s Oboe Concerto on an autumn afternoon in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Judith Weir, Wagner: Celia Craig (oboe), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Andrew Gourlay (conductor). BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 27.9.2019. (PCG)

Judith Weir

DebussyPrélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Judith Weir – Oboe Concerto (UK première)

Wagner (arr. Andrew Gourlay) – Parsifal Suite (UK première)

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales presented the UK première of Judith Weir’s Oboe Concerto as the central feature of the opening concert of the 2019/2020 season, entitled appropriately ‘Autumn Afternoon’. The concerto had its first outing a year ago in Australia, also with Celia Craig, for whom it had been written. This performance was a return to home territory for the soloist, who had formerly played with BBC NOW. Judith Weir herself had played the oboe for a period of some twenty years, so in many ways this concerto had, as the composer observed in her programme note, an ‘almost autobiographical significance’. Her sympathy for, and understanding of, the instrument was abundantly clear. At no time was the soloist asked to do anything against the basically lyrical nature of oboe technique. Even a passage which the programme note referred to as ‘almost brutal’ was blended without effort into the whole. The rare outbursts of more lively elements hardly perturbed the emotionally lyrical sense of line; the work is more a rhapsodic concertante than a display concerto, and all the better for it. The basic style is most attractive, although ‘attractive’ does not really do justice to a work that is frequently very beautiful indeed. I look forward to hearing it again, and I hope that a recording is already in the pipeline.

The new concerto fitted ideally into a programme of predominantly slow music, as befitted the concert title. The autumn afternoon had commenced with Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, surely a work that could never be mistaken for any season but summer. It was an ideal vehicle for flautist Matthew Featherstone to display his superlative emotional engagement with the music, extending the opening phrases with a languid ease that conjured up the atmosphere superlatively. The playing under Andrew Gourlay had a sense of freedom which threatened at times to dissolve the rhythm altogether. But the clarity of the texture (even the problematic antique cymbals at the end) was admirable, and the performance as a whole highlighted elements in the score which can sometimes be smothered in an impressionistic haze.

The conductor himself was responsible for the assembly of the 45-minute Parsifal Suite, the second half of the concert. His programme note described the project as ‘a labour of love’. There is, of course, a long and honourable tradition of composers who extract orchestral suites from their operatic scores; Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas have long been more often performed, outside Russia at any rate, in that form than in their original stagings. Wagner set a precedent by extracting orchestral sections, and sometimes vocal sections with the voices omitted, in his concerts. Two such excerpts from Parsifal are regularly performed. It was with these – the Prelude and the Good Friday Music – that Gourlay’s suite commenced. Half-way through the latter, however, he transitioned into the Interlude from the last act, returning then through the score to the Act III Prelude, the Act II Prelude, the Interlude from the first act, and a brief section of Parsifal’s return from Act III before concluding with an abridged version of the final scene from the opera. His concern to provide a continuously linked orchestral movement may perhaps have overridden dramatic proprieties, and some of the transitions were somewhat too abrupt (with the inevitable feeling of frustration for listeners familiar with the original score). The sequence did have the merit that the final pages recapitulated all three of the themes from the opening Prelude, providing a highly satisfying symphonic unity. The conductor’s note expressed a hope that the suite ‘might prove a useful addition to the orchestral repertoire’. I would concur, with perhaps the additional hope that the excised climax in the Good Friday Music might be restored. Some consideration might also be given to the occasional passages where a solo trombone takes over the vocal line – this works for Gurnemanz but sounds somewhat stentorian for Parsifal himself – although at other points the orchestral trombones were successfully dovetailed with passages written in the opera for offstage players. The performance was generally excellent, even if what remained of the Good Friday Music was delivered rather too quickly to provide a real sense of repose and contemplation; and the string tremolandos in the depiction of Klingsor’s magic realm could have done with a little more definition.

I must particularly commend the bell sounds in the funereal Interlude from Act III. In the past, reviewing CDs and DVDs of the opera, I have frequently found cause to complain of the habit of substituting tubular bells and other expedients several octaves higher than Wagner’s notated deep bass sounds, and recommended the adoption of the synthesised effect devised by Eckhard Maronn and Reiner Hecht in the 1970s. The effect was used by Reginald Goodall in his Welsh National Opera recording of 1983 as well as a number of Bayreuth productions of the same period. For this performance, the conductor had prepared his own sampled track (as he explained during an interlude talk on BBC Radio 3) on much the same lines, and the effect was superlative.

For some reason, the BBC NOW performance of the Verdi Requiem next week is being advertised in Radio Times as ‘the opening concert of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ 2019/20 season’. I do not know what that description implies for this ‘autumn afternoon’ but it was a worthy opener in its own right. In the meantime, the concert, which was broadcast live on Radio 3, remains available on the BBC Sounds service. Anyone who missed the afternoon transmission should make an effort to hear it. While they are at it, they should also investigate the belated relay during the same week of a concert from the Vale of Glamorgan Festival earlier this year. It featured miscellaneous premières of works by John Metcalf, Mark David Boden and Ben Wallace, all of which I reviewed enthusiastically for this site last May (review click here).

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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