A Cardiff BBC NOW programme of rarities and discoveries

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schmidt, Liebermann, Bach/Markevitch: Matthew Featherstone (flute), BBC National Orchestra of Wales /Jonathan Berman (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 21.10.2022. (PCG)

Matthew Featherstone in rehearsal

J. S. Bach, (arr. Igor Markevitch) – Ricercar a 3 from The Musical Offering
Lowell Liebermann – Flute Concerto Op.39 (1992)
Franz Schmidt – Symphony No.2 in E flat (1913)

Despite the best endeavours of his proponents and protagonists, Franz Schmidt’s four symphonies have never really established themselves outside the confines of Austria and Germany, in the manner that those of Mahler and Bruckner slowly achieved during the twentieth century. It was all the more welcome, then, that the BBC National Orchestra of Wales gave us the massive fifty-minute Second Symphony as the second part of this concert. Among other things, to experience the music in live performance tended to negate the impression – conveyed by recorded performances – of pieces that were over-heavily orchestrated, with too much contrapuntal detail to allow for clarity of expression.

The score of the Second Symphony, with its triple and quadruple woodwind and heavily sub-divided string sections, is indeed laden with harmonic and textural detail and ornamentation to an extreme degree of complexity. One is reminded in places of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder without the surface glitter; Schmidt strictly limits his percussive contributions and eschews altogether the use of harps or tuned percussion. But live performance helps to disentangle the web. There are times when one wishes the composer would realise that more is not necessarily more effective than less, and that he would avoid the temptation to add yet another line of counterpoint to the texture. Nonetheless, the writing came across clearly even when the turmoil was at its most extreme. The sheer speed and complexity of the demands on the players occasionally produced some unexpected squawks, but the overall contours were clearly deliminated to be appreciated.

In fact, Schmidt seems almost to have made a conscious effort to control his natural exuberance after the Mahlerian turmoil of the first movement. The second movement is a set of variations in which the orchestral spotlight is turned individually onto woodwind, brass or strings, and there is a welcome sense of lightness and contrast. Suddenly, towards the end, the ninth variation extends itself in both form and weight to produce a scherzo, so marked in the score. There follow a trio-variation and a further development of the scherzo material, for the combined effect of a semi-independent movement. The distinction between winds and strings continues into the finale, where a chorale melody is contrasted with material of increasing complexity. That leads to a conclusion which combines both elements at a positively Brucknerian length. The end brought considerable enthusiasm from the audience, smallish – the hall was less than half full – but suitably impressed by the music. One hopes to hear more Schmidt in future. As I have noted, the clarity of live performance is a definite advantage over even the most analytical of recordings.

One would certainly expect to hear more of Lowell Liebermann. His willingness to provide contemporary audiences with music of skill and artistry is always welcome, not least in the Flute Concerto he wrote some thirty years ago for James Galway. The concerto opens charmingly with the flute melody which floats over plodding bass lines in the brass and leads to similarly witty contrasts throughout. This evokes the spirit of Prokofiev in his most balletic moods. The slow movement, very beautiful indeed, begins with a sense of rapt ecstasy and moves into more sinister territory before the reconciliation of the conclusion. But this was not the cool beauty that one sometimes finds in minimalist scores. A wellspring of richly purposeful emotion lay beneath, and Matthew Featherstone’s exquisite playing gave it full measure. By contrast, the finale was a helter-skelter of brilliant technique, delivered through a series of brief episodes in which the soloist was paired and contrasted with other members of the orchestra. We heard bass clarinet, harp, piano and even at one point a decoration woven around a melodic line in the piccolo! The whole ended in a delightfully offbeat manner. The flute suddenly fell silent on the final note and the soloist gave a nonchalant shrug in the manner of ‘this is just how it goes’. Featherstone is a real treasure of this orchestra, and it was pleasing to see that he was given an enthusiastic reception both by the audience and by his fellow players. His performance was a gem.

The concert had begun with Igor Markevitch’s imaginative arrangement of the smaller-scale fugal movement from Bach’s Musical Offering. Here again much use was made of the spatial differentiation of the string players. They were divided into two stereophonically placed bodies of players bound together by a solid body of double bass tone on the outer extremities of the orchestra. This distribution of the individual players, with an isolated trio of soloists in the centre, helped to clarify Bach’s contrapuntal textures. The music made an interesting, albeit brief, introduction to a concert in which the contrast between bodies of instruments formed an integral part of the whole in all three of the featured works. Never mind that it required an unscheduled interval of some five minutes to allow the orchestra to re-arrange themselves afterwards.

Throughout the performance, Jonathan Berman proved to be an efficient and involved conductor, and the choice of the repertory was particularly innovative. The concert, we were told, was being recorded for future transmission in the BBC’s Radio 3 in Concert series, after which it would be available to stream or download for thirty days on BBC Sounds. Liebermann’s concerto is particularly highly recommended to listeners. If the engineers can capture the clarified textures we heard in the hall, Schmidt’s symphony may well prove revelatory as well.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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