BBC NOW play Grace Williams and Mahler in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Grace Williams, Mahler: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Christoph König (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 10.3.2022. (PCG)

Christoph König

Grace WilliamsSea Sketches (1944)
Mahler – Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor (1901-02)

Christoph König’s long and distinguished career stretches back some twenty years, but I had only known him from the 2020 Naxos recording of Farrenc’s First Symphony. I described his interpretation with his own Soloistes Européens Luxembourg as ‘engaging and committed’. The same could apply to this performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. König stepped in for the previously announced Tadaaki Otaka, who has had several decades of association with this orchestra.

It has been a long-established truism that Mahler interpretation falls into one of two camps, The highly interventionist school makes the most of the composer’s each, often outlandish, indication of style and delivery. The classical school attempts to bind these various elements into a unified whole and allow the symphonic structure to dominate. I decidedly prefer the former. Mahler’s detailed instructions came with due consideration, to be expected from such an experienced conductor. He clearly knew precisely what he was doing when, for example, he asked clarinets or horns to raise the bells of their instruments to produce a shriller and more penetrating sound, even at the risk of losing precise control over their tuning. The players’ protests often make conductors ignore or at least tone down the more extreme demands. Not so here: we got the requisite sense of raw excitement, and indeed good humour, that Mahler clearly had in mind.

At the same time, König did not neglect the more formal demands of the symphonic structure. These are seen at their loosest in the famous Adagietto fourth movement. For many years, since at least the time of Leonard Bernstein, it has been the habit of conductors to treat the music as a sort of funereal lament, encouraged by the composer’s marking of Sehr langsam or very slow at the head of the movement. But it was originally conceived as a love song to Mahler’s new, and at that time faithful, wife, Alma. If the opening tempo is set at too protracted a pace, the demands on the final page of the full score – Noch langsamer or still slower – cannot be achieved unless the music freezes into near-stasis. König began at a flowing but still slow speed, and achieved tear-jerking results from the hesitation the violins introduce into their final restatement of the rising opening theme. And there is the interruption of the final chord by the horn’s cheeky intervention (the strings then dying away into distance) which launches the finale; this worked with great subtlety. The final pages were also impressive, working up a real head of steam.

So, this was a very good performance indeed, free of eccentricities but with plenty of character. The same can be said of the first piece in the programme, Grace Williams’s Sea Sketches; otherwise its scale might rather suggest a mismatch for the main work. The scoring is for strings alone (slightly fewer than in Mahler’s symphony). This might suggest that the music is rather pallid when compared with other British works of the period such as Britten’s Peter Grimes interludes or Bridge’s The Sea; the BBC’s anonymous programme note did not hesitate to make comparisons with Debussy’s La mer. What the score needs most of all is a sense of emotional and descriptive commitment, and the BBC strings under König supplied that in spades. The violins’ rich tone gave the work more sheer body than in the old Decca recording under David Atherton with the slimmer string section of the English Chamber Orchestra, and the stature of the work increased accordingly. The rushing chromatic scales of Breakers failed to exorcise the ghost of Rimsky-Korsakov’s bumblebee that lies inevitably over the textures, but otherwise the playing was superlatively well managed. König phrasing brought life to the opening High wind and even more so to the final Calm sea in summer. Best of all was the impressionistically misty atmosphere of Channel sirens, where the richer ensemble of massed strings scored heavily over the thinner chamber textures on the Decca recording. The orchestra gave an outstanding performance of Williams’s Penillion and Violin Concerto last autumn. Their playing here whets the appetite for a complete disc of new recordings of her works in modern sound to replace Lyrita’s historic transfers. How about it, Chandos?

It was good to hear the BBC National Orchestra of Wales back in St David’s Hall. I had missed their outing last month when a heavy storm disrupted public transport throughout the region. I liked it that they could at last occupy the stage without the need for additional distancing to dilute their massed string tone. Even the besetting sin of the acoustic in the hall – its failure to support a really overwhelming orchestral explosion – was overcome by the enthusiastic engagement of orchestra and conductor in Mahler’s work. The applause at the end was tremendous, even though the audience could have been larger. The event was dedicated to the memory of Sarah Chapman, a violist with the orchestra for some four decades, who recently died of motor neurone disease. The concert was broadcast live only on BBC Radio Cymru, but the same programme is being given on 11 March in Swansea. That will be relayed at a later date on BBC Radio 3. Both will be available for a month on BBC Sounds.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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