United Kingdom Grieg, Tchaikovsky: Yevgeny Sudbin (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Joseph Swensen (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 14.11.2019. (PCG)
Grieg – Peer Gynt: Suite No.1; Piano Concerto in A minor
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.6 in B minor, ‘Pathétique’
I suspect most readers of published music reviews expect the critic – at the very least – to furnish an inventory of either errors or points of disagreement with the interpretation, even when the writer does not actually take issue with the composition under discussion. I am sorry to disappoint any such anticipation of Schadenfreude, but at this concert there really was almost nothing to take issue with in any of these departments (barring one very fleeting moment of ragged ensemble in the Grieg piano concerto). The programme, entitled generically Heroes and Heartache, consisted of three of the most popular works in the symphonic repertoire, which have suffered carping over the years. Some had attacked the ‘vulgar excesses’ of Tchaikovsky in general and of the Pathétique Symphony in particular. Others, on the contrary, had complained of the ‘drawing-room tameness’ of Grieg’s incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Such decidedly minority opinions have done nothing to dent the enthusiasm of audiences for both the scores in more than a century. And nobody seems to have ever had a bad word to say about the Grieg Piano Concerto.
Let me give just a few examples of much excellence in the performances here. Grieg’s admittedly clumsy scoring of the opening of The Hall of the Mountain King – where the woodwind statements of the repeated phrase can overpower the pizzicato strings – was resolved as well as could ever be expected in a live performance. The magnificent peroration of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, where first the soloist and then the orchestra suddenly and unexpectedly shift the theme into the minor – an effect which both astounded and enthralled Liszt – was delivered with sufficient panache to make us overlook what could nowadays be too-easily dismissed as a hackneyed effect with which we are dangerously over-familiar; the performance here helped us realise just what it was that galvanised Liszt when he first heard the piece. Or take the end of the exposition of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The two clarinettists, Robert Plane and Lenny Sayers, filed their tone down to match the composer’s ridiculously overstated demand for pppppp (Sayers switched unobtrusively to the bass clarinet for four notes) to be succeeded by a ff orchestral tutti that fizzes and sparkles with explosive energy and rampaging string figuration; the effect here matched the best that could be heard anywhere. The featherweight lightness in the opening of the third movement of the symphony developed into the most glorious vulgar march where the weight of the bass drum added an undertow of unexpected menace. And even, given the bunching of the violins on the left of the stage, the careful management of the opening of the finale (where the notes of the tune pass from first to second violins) made the sound audibly ebb and recede across the platform rather than passing stereoscopically from left to right.
Not only was the playing superlative throughout, but conductor Joseph Swensen steered an admirable course between the Scylla of overstatement and the Charybdis of attempting to impose ‘classical symphonic’ norms. Thus the final movement of the Tchaikovsky with its dying fall did not attempt to evoke an image of either voluntary or enforced suicide; indeed, the programme notes by Stephen Johnson and Marina Frolova-Walker attempted a ‘sober refutation’ of the ‘very shaky premises’ on which such an interpretation might be founded. Yevgeny Sudbin contributed to the overall excellence, with a performance of the Grieg which not only laid out all the notes in the right order but with full weight and involvement. His rapport with the orchestra in the places where Grieg shadows the piano with woodwind and string echoes were as beautifully judged as his passages of delicate filigree.
On to the matter of the audience. It was good to see such a wide range of ages represented. Some of those present were clearly attending their first concert, and what a concert! But hacking coughs which erupted throughout during the quiet opening of The death of Åse in the Grieg Peer Gynt suite must entirely be laid at the door of an older generation. They may have suffered from the climatic perils of a chilly and damp November evening – but they made no attempt to stifle their coughs. (I recall that, many years ago, London’s Royal Festival Hall included in all their programmes an appeal for audiences to muffle their eruptions with the aid of a handkerchief; it might do no harm to repeat the injunction for modern listeners.)
At the end of the third movement of the Tchaikovsky symphony the audience, as seems inevitable, burst into premature applause. I normally take no issue with applause between movements – many composers would actually have expected such applause at the premieres! – but it seems particularly unfortunate in the case of the Pathétique. At the end of the march with its hyperbolically manic coda, Tchaikovsky deliberately does not mark a pause in the score as he does at the end of the other movements. The clear implication is that the doom-laden plunge into the minor at the opening of the finale should act like a sudden plunge into ice-cold water. Any applause at this point completely ruins the effect, and the fact that most record producers insert a silent pause – which similarly sacrifices the dramatic contrast – is no excuse. Faced with untimely applause, the conductor can only forge ahead immediately, so that the opening bars of the finale are lost beneath the noise (the tactic adopted by Maxim Vengerov on the last occasion this symphony was performed at this venue), or adopt Joseph Swensen’s compromise here of making a pause with a resigned shrug, obviously preferable. But it should surely be possible for someone to make an announcement before a performance of the symphony, asking the audience to refrain from applause at this point.
It is a pity that one must spend a good third of a critical review on an audience, when the fare laid out before them is of such high quality. The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on the evening of Monday 18 November. Before then, Peer Gynt and the Pathétique (this time coupled with the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto, but with the same performers) are to be heard at the Forum in Bath. Anybody who lives in that area should clearly make an effort to go along; and radio listeners can enjoy this performance not only in the broadcast relay, but also on the BBC Sounds streaming and downloading service, coughs and all, presumably, but hopefully minimised by microphone placement in the hall. Even so, one should note with pleasure that at the end of the Tchaikovsky symphony the intensity of the interpretation Joseph Swensen conjured from the orchestra managed to silence even the most hardened of sufferers, and during the closing bars one could have heard a pin drop.
Paul Corfield Godfrey