BBC NOW presents two warhorses in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bacewicz, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky: Johan Dalene (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Marta Gardolíńska (conductor). BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 24.2.2022. (PCG)

Johan Dalene

Grażyna Bacewicz – Overture
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

The Uwertura by Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz was far from an obvious choice last year as one of the BBC’s ‘ten pieces‘ designed to promote the cause of classical music in British schools. Earlier, her representation in the record catalogues had been relatively sparse; Arnold Whittall in a 2009 Gramophone review had complained that she ‘wrote too much too quickly for everything to be on the same level’. But this 1943  piece is remarkable. Written at the height of the Second World War in occupied Poland, it looks forward courageously to the prospect of ultimate victory, with the morse-code V rhythm rather surreptitiously incorporated into the timpani part. It is a restless and disturbed work, but the orchestra, especially the energetic string players, realised well its purposefulness and vigour.

The promotional inclusion of this piece in the programme was presumably why the BBC decided to record the concert for a future television broadcast on BBC Four. The result of this decision was immediately apparent on arrival at the hall. The audience was shrouded in near-theatrical darkness, and the orchestra was illuminated principally by a battery of upright neon tubes and giant standard lamps, looking for all the world suspiciously like a cheap restaurant. (I am not quite sure what the television audience will be expected to look at, since the players too were cloaked in dusk.) As a final touch, the whole floor of the hall had been covered in extensive swathes of carpet. That certainly served to reduce the reverberation in the resonant acoustic of the Hoddinott auditorium, but did less to mask the volume of sound produced by the brass and percussion placed upon risers at the back of the stage.

The resultant imbalance did no favours to the orchestral playing in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The heavy brass in particular dominated the massed strings and woodwind in passages such as the recapitulation of the first movement. The latter should really hold sway; that is no fault of the players, clearly doing their best, or the conductor unable to judge the effect of the area of carpet between the orchestra and the audience. This was a real pity, because Marta Gardolíńska’s interpretation showed a real sense of engagement and subtlety elsewhere. At the very beginning, her shading of the music into the entry of the first subject anticipated the composer’s marked ritenuto by a couple of bars, to magical effect. In the third movement (Scherzo), too, she allowed sufficient time for the pizzicato strings to articulate their fast quavers in a manner that permitted a clear delivery of their dynamics.

This made it all the more of a shame that she inserted the almost traditional but un-notated two half-bar pauses following the first two climaxes in the last movement. It seems clear to me that Tchaikovsky fully intended the statements of the ‘birch tree’ folk-tune to drive obsessively forward throughout the whole of the movement until it suddenly slams into the restatement of the ‘fate’ theme like a car without brakes encountering an immovable object. To insert pauses into this Gadarene stampede means merely that the momentum has to be rebuilt from scratch; and to claim, as I have been told, that a moment of silence is required to allow the reverberation to die down after the preceding percussion clashes is to attribute an insulting level of incompetence to a composer whose orchestral instincts were generally infallible (however cavalier he may have been to their treatment by performers, as in his Rococo Variations). One might almost add that the carpet on the floor had already reduced any threatened echo which might have confused the texture. But this was a minor cavil in a rendition of the symphony that had plenty of excitement elsewhere.

Oddly, the carpet was a positive gain in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto which ended the first half of the concert. There was a superbly judged balance between the positive soloistic enunciation of the energetic Johan Dalene and the orchestra. The performance too was one of uninterrupted excellence and pleasure. It is altogether too easy to overlook the many innovations in Mendelssohn’s score, many of them subsequently taken up by later composers to such an extent that they formed a new standard and format. But the soloist managed superbly the stroke of genius whereby Mendelssohn launched his first movement cadenza at the end of the development, allowing its closing rippling arpeggiation to merge back into the orchestral recapitulation without ever becoming overwhelmed. Similarly the links between the movements were beautifully contrived. The raptly still recapitulation in the slow movement gradually accumulated pace as the finale slowly got under way and the lightning-fast cheeky woodwind counterpoints delightfully integrated into the whole. Even the peculiarly difficult to co-ordinate opening of the concerto, with the solo violin rhapsodising over a tremolo string accompaniment (a technique copied almost note-for-note by Sibelius), is lent spring by the rhythmic pulse in timpani and pizzicato basses which can so easily submerge if not carefully paced. This was a performance to make the listener reconsider Mendelssohn’s unfair reputation as a youthful boy wonder who degenerated into a routine conservative in middle age (he never reached an old age): the spark was still in him even three years before his death. The soloist and the conductor clearly relished the composer’s continuing originality.

We were advised that, apart from the BBC Four television programme, the concert would also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 during their Afternoon Concert slot and available on BBC Sounds for thirty days thereafter. One hopes this will be fairly soon. I miss the series of complete concerts which formed the BBC Radio 3 afternoon slots in pre-pandemic days. The current collection of miscellaneous items from various sources is no real substitute for a carefully constructed concert programme. I also look forward to future hearings of Johan Dalene and Marta Gardolińska, preferably without the carpet.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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