United Kingdom Dvořák, Sibelius: Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Anu Tali (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 20.2.2020. (PCG)
Dvořák – Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104
Sibelius – Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43
During the past three weeks South Wales has been racked by a series of storms which have led to widespread flooding, and apparently adversely affected attendance at this orchestra’s last concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff. (I too was prevented from reviewing it as I had planned.) It was therefore doubly gratifying to see a near-capacity audience at the Hoddinott Hall for a full evening’s concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3; it was repeated the following evening in Swansea, with a further broadcast relay to follow. And that despite the fact that both the works on the programme had already been heard at St David’s Hall in the last four months, and neither concert had attracted full attendance: the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under Tomáš Hanus played the Dvořák concerto, and Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Sibelius symphony.
The programme here was bound together by a generic title Conflict and Triumph, which to a certain extent reflected the historical implications of the music, without necessarily describing its substance or intention. Although Dvořák’s cello concerto has become a symbol of Czech national resistance to foreign oppression, the composer would certainly never have perceived his composition in that light. And Sibelius went out of his way to disclaim any nationalist programme to his symphony, describing it rather in natural terms as ‘a mighty river building in strength from many small streams before finally reaching the sea’.
The Estonian conductor Anu Tali was also no stranger to Cardiff. She had appeared here with this orchestra in 2015 when she presented a programme of music from the Baltic states. This time she spread her geographical net wider, but her generic approach to the works she scheduled remained largely unchanged. Four years ago, I commented that she adopted a generally laissez-faire attitude to the score, allowing the players of the BBC NOW considerable leeway in their interpretation of the music. She largely abnegated any attempt to impose dynamic balance on the orchestra, and her left-hand gestures were confined almost exclusively to mirror images of the movements of the baton in her right. None of this had changed, which generally was fine since the orchestra know the Sibelius in particular very well as they had both played and recorded it under their previous principal conductor Thomas Søndergård. But even so the score poses more pitfalls than might be expected.
Sibelius was notoriously cavalier in the marking of his scores, and the second symphony is no exception. Let me explain. Just look at the very last page, where in the course of ten bars Sibelius asks for the heavy brass (trumpets and trombones) to play fff – as loudly as possible; at the same time, the less powerful instruments – woodwind, horns and strings – are restricted to a simple fortissimo. In the final four bars he then suddenly asks the trumpets and tuba to scale back to the same fortissimo while leaving the trombones at their original dynamic. The clarinets are asked to make persistent diminuendos on a single note where the only marking is poco f nine bars earlier. Now none of this, if taken literally as written, makes sense. It needs the conductor to moderate the volume between the various passages, to ensure that all the elements build to the final climax that the composer clearly envisaged. The players of this orchestra can supply all the raw materials for this (and their playing throughout was superlative) but they cannot hear the overall effect to judge and make the adjustments required. Only the conductor can do that, and too often there were places where the brass and timpani were allowed to overwhelm the woodwind and strings.
The conductor’s insistence on clarity of beat occasioned some further loss of atmosphere at the beginning of the second movement, which Sibelius marked in a typically enigmatic fashion Tempo Andante, ma rubato. The pizzicato passage in the double basses began very slowly indeed – and very effectively, too – but then began to pick up speed (except during bars specifically marked riten) until, by the time the bassoons entered forty bars later, the pizzicato movement had nearly doubled in speed and the lugubre bassoons, for so Sibelius marks them, were on the brink of sounding positively jaunty. Søndergård in his live performance with the same players in St David’s Hall had produced a sense of real menace and mystery here. In the end, the score sounded as magnificently triumphant at the end as always (how could it ever do otherwise?) but moments of repose and real quietness were few and far between. The best passages came in the whirlwind scherzo and the inexorable motor energy of the finale.
The same unwillingness to rein in the enthusiasm of the orchestra similarly caused difficulties in the performance of Dvořák’s concerto. Cello concertos always occasion problems of balance between the soloist and the orchestra. The problems are exacerbated in the Dvořák work, where the composer employs the resources of a full romantic orchestra including trombones and tuba. (It is one of the very few concertos I know of where the soloist is actually silent for the final seventeen bars of the score.) Now Dvořák was no fool, and he made sure that he kept his heavy brass well out of the way when the solo cello was engaged in elaborate figuration in the lower and middle registers. Even so, it is vital that the conductor be prepared to intervene and moderate the dynamic levels, where necessary, to ensure that the soloist has the chance to be heard. And once again there was a real lack of true pianissimo to underpin Alban Gerhardt’s expressive playing. He could be seen to be working away manfully but little detail penetrated into the body of the hall over the resonant sound of the orchestra.
I have no doubt that careful microphone placement will ensure that Gerhardt’s solo playing comes across to home audiences rather more effectively than it did in the hall, and that the lack of light and shade which I have noted in the Sibelius will be similarly minimised. Indeed, the performance in the larger acoustic of the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea may produce better balanced results. And I must record that the capacity audience in Cardiff, clearly impressed by the enthusiasm of the players and the undoubted excitement whipped up by the conductor, cheered the performances to the skies. The concert itself is now available on BBC Sounds, and the Swansea relay will follow in due course.
Paul Corfield Godfrey