United Kingdom Smetana, Debussy, Dvořák: Daniel Müller-Schott (cello), Welsh National Opera Orchestra / Tomáš Hanus (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 27.10.2019. (PCG)
Smetana – Vltava
Debussy – La mer
Dvořák – Cello Concerto in B minor Op.104
Wagner wrote in his essay on the art of conducting that one of the conductor’s most important functions was to control the ebb and flow of the tempo of the music to bring out to the best advantage the composer’s intentions in their interpretation. Although there are some practitioners who insist on a strict accordance to the written text of the score, Wagner’s rule of thumb is an excellent guide at the very least to the performance of romantic music – and all of the works in this concert fell firmly into that category. And it was pleasing to note that Tomáš Hanus had clearly taken this idea to heart, as indeed was also evident last month in his fresh and imaginative interpretation of an operatic score like Bizet’s Carmen, a piece that can all too easily fall into the category of routine.
Smetana’s Vltava, the second of the tone poems from his patriotic cycle Má vlast, can also suffer from a sense of over-familiarity, with its main theme falling into an easy jog-trot delivery which fails to realise to the full the carefully considered textures which underlie it. There was no danger of that here: Hanus successfully brought out the occasional contrapuntal themes in the woodwind against the flowing violins. There was plenty of power, too, in the playing of the surging string melodies, and a delightfully insouciant quality to the subtle inflections of the peasant wedding. At the end, as the main theme fades into the distance, Hanus brought a sense of almost Tristan-like rapture to the divided violins which precisely mirrored Smetana’s request for smorzando; the closing abrupt two-chord cadence came as quite a shock.
There was plenty of subtlety too in the performance of Debussy’s La mer which followed. Erik Satie was obviously joking when he remarked to the composer that he particularly enjoyed the passage ‘at about a quarter to eleven’ in the opening From dawn to midday on the sea, but Hanus here brought an especial sense of rapture to the cor anglais and violin melody at about that point in the score which was, as Debussy requested, très expressif et soutenu. When the BBC National Orchestra of Wales performed this score in the hall a couple of years ago, they made a serious attempt to comply with Debussy’s extravagant demands for extra strings (at one point he asks for sixteen cellos). Here the nine players of the WNO orchestra sounded relatively thinner, but there was no lack of string body in the sound elsewhere. I do object to the omission of eight bars of woodwind towards the end of the last movement Dialogue of the wind and the sea. Debussy apparently made this alteration to the score upon complaints that it sounded like a popular song of the time, but that need hardly trouble us nowadays – and the music sounds curiously barren without the passage in question. Otherwise this was a treasurable and most enjoyable performance; the orchestra raised the roof in the closing pages in a manner that can be hard to achieve in this hall.
In Dvořák’s Cello Concerto which followed the interval, Daniel Müller-Schott proved to be a sterling soloist. His rich tone was never submerged by the composer’s sometimes heavy orchestration, and every note of whose filigree decoration was audible. He clearly loves the music, as indeed does Hanus, but unfortunately this love sometimes manifested itself in some emotionally charged slow tempi. In the first movement, Dvořák specifies an overall Allegro speed, qualifying this for the second subject with the instruction un poco sostenuto and a marginally slower metronome mark. Here both soloist and conductor applied the brakes with a will, producing results that were very beautiful but which robbed the music of the forward momentum, also so much a part of Dvořák’s appeal. The slow movement too was raptly still, with the second part of the composer’s instruction Adagio ma non troppo largely ignored. And in the finale the reminiscences of earlier music often brought the music to a near standstill; even the return of the rondo theme at one point was delivered at a more weighty pace. In the section just before the closing bars, where Dvořák does ask for molto rit, the performance actually speeded up since the ritard had been supplied so liberally in the preceding section that there was nowhere else for the music to go to. This was a case of the performers’ affection for the music robbing the delivery of its vitality, and the closing bars with their molto accelerando seemed almost perfunctory. But the glorious orchestral tutti shortly beforehand (surely an instance of Dvořák recollecting the similar transformation in Grieg’s piano concerto?) had all the strength that one could desire. It seemed odd to have a solo cello encore at the end of the evening, but I must thank Daniel Müller-Schott for informing the audience that he was going to play Ravel’s Habañera. The languorous Iberian cadences made a lovely conclusion to the evening.
Welsh National Opera’s programme booklet was, as always, a model of good presentation, complete with happily chosen illustrations including the original cover for the score of Debussy’s La mer. I had not realised that the composer (or his publisher) had actually edited the reproduction of Hokusai’s The Great Wave to remove not only the Japanese text but also the fishing boat from the original illustration – transferring the emphasis away from the human towards the elemental nature of the scene. There also were informative programme notes, formerly anonymous but now credited to Elin Jones.
The next concert performance by the WNO Orchestra in this hall bids fair to be a major event. On 19 January they will join with the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales to present a ‘reproduction’ of the celebrated 1808 concert given by Beethoven in Vienna, at which the composer premièred both his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, his Fourth Piano Concerto, his Choral Fantasia, and sections from his Mass in C major. This programme may have induced aural indigestion in the original audience, but here the performances are sensibly being extended over several hours commencing in the afternoon. It appears that tickets for this unique event are still available.
Paul Corfield Godfrey