United Kingdom Rachmaninov, Stravinsky: Yeol Eum Son (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Ryan Bancroft (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 6.10.2022. (PCG)
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30 (1909)
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring (1913)
Two weeks after their Hoddinott Hall concert for the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales launched their full season for 2022-2023 at Cardiff’s St David Hall. Although we had already had a fairly full programme of concerts in 2021-2022 following the partial easing of pandemic restrictions, this was something in the nature of a relaunch with the orchestra, back at full strength with quadruple woodwind, crammed onto the extended hall stage and freed from the constraints of social distancing. And a gratifyingly full audience, who finally seem to have overcome their reluctance to attend large-scale events, with seats in the stalls and lower reaches of the house more fully occupied than even they were in pre-pandemic days. Let us hope this degree of enthusiasm will continue.
Certainly it will deserve to do so if future concerts in the season are to meet the standard set here. At the end of last season, Ryan Bancroft had demonstrated his affinity with twentieth-century Russian music with a coruscating account of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. Here he crowned that achievement with superlative renditions of two Russian works from some four decades earlier. Although the Rachmaninov and Stravinsky scores were penned within three years of each other, they could not be more different or form a greater contrast.
Over the past couple of decades, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto has tended to overtake the ubiquitous second in the stakes of public popularity. There are several reasons, not least the skilful way in which the composer builds the tension throughout the length of the score from its deceptively naïve beginnings to its overwhelmingly virtuosic conclusion. And this was ideally recognised in the considered performance by the award-winning South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son. She began with a classically simple statement of her opening theme, allowing the music to charm without demanding the attention. At first, one feared that her delicacy might prove inadequate to the more barnstorming music that would follow. Those fears were groundless; she was harbouring her strength. In the climax before the cadenza (given here in the extended version that even Rachmaninov feared to play) she rose to the challenge presented by the orchestral tutti. She sprang up from her seat to descend on the keyboard with the full force of her body. From this moment onward, the performance simply rose from one beautifully charged climax to another. The luscious string writing in the slow movement also developed as the music progressed, rising from a delicate phrasing with minimal vibrato to a full-blooded romantic effusion at the end. The interruption of this lyrical idyll by the piano launch of the finale came as even more of a shock than usual. The soloist and the orchestra handled the tricky triplet rhythms with scintillating skill. The challenges between the protagonists became even more extreme towards the end. Yeol Eum Son threw her arms up in triumph at the end of some particularly sizzling display of virtuosity, as if defying the orchestra to beat that – and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, the audience erupted onto their feet with cheers at the end, and indeed this was a performance in a thousand.
If the Rachmaninov had been good, the Stravinsky was even more exceptional. Ryan Bancroft, as is his wont, conducted without a baton. One feared at first that the control over the orchestra – he allowed the wind players to phrase easily during their opening solos – might be just too relaxed. But when the rhythmic impulses kicked in, everything was exactly in place and the ensemble was retained with immaculate precision. Indeed, the very sense of freedom extended to an ability to allow the excitement to build up an unstoppable head of steam during some of the more headlong passages, to the extent that one feared that the ensemble might simply disintegrate under the pressure. Not a bit of it; the orchestra responded fearlessly to every demand that was placed upon them.
Bancroft was not afraid either to bring out some passages in the score that can be overlooked. In a score where so much emphasis is placed on the elaborate rhythmic interplay of the individual lines, it is easy to ignore some of the many subtleties that Stravinsky has written into his textures. In the opening bars, one was immediately struck by the subterranean gurglings of the bass clarinets, like some gargantuan monster labouring underground. I was reminded of the belief of the primitive Siberians that the mammoths they observed emerging from the ice of glaciers were enormous moles rising to be destroyed by the fatal light of day. Then again, the bellowing of the pair of Wagner tubas sounded for all the world like terrified bullocks led to slaughter (and indeed perhaps such a vision might well have been in Stravinsky’s mind). Bancroft was not afraid to insist that the horn players raised their bells in the air – a technique Stravinsky probably borrowed from Mahler – during some of the more barbaric passages, willing to accept the attendant risk that the instruments might not stay impeccably in tune; but they did. And just before the final chord, he held the dotted crochet of silence which Stravinsky marked colla parte for a daringly long period, challenging the audience, and the orchestra, to hold back their applause for just that extra length of time.
I might perhaps spare a word for the programme notes provided by Paul Griffiths, refreshingly angled from some unorthodox viewpoints. While most commentators on The Rite of Spring understandably emphasise the iconoclastic and modern nature of Stravinsky’s writing, Griffiths draws interesting parallels with contemporary fantasy and its search for prehistorical and mythological antecedents. He cites the sometimes highly speculative research made by the originators of the ballet into Russian folklore and music. Similarly, he emphasises the structural innovations of the Rachmaninov concerto and the inter-relationship between its thematic material in the various movements rather than exploration of Rachmaninov’s own difficulties in coping with the actual notes which have often preoccupied others. I would not like to think that such apparently marginal matters go unnoticed.
It has perhaps been unfortunate that Bancroft, who started his tenure as principal conductor of the orchestra at the beginning of the 2021-2022 season in the middle of the pandemic, has not until now been given the opportunity to produce such thrillingly large-scale performances as this – although the Shostakovich a couple of months ago served notice that the potential was there. I note from his biography in the programme that his international career is developing rapidly, but I would hope that he will continue his association with the orchestra for some years to come. He and the players seem to co-operate readily and successfully in the production of performances of dazzling quality. Readers do not need to take my word for this. The concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, remains available on BBC Sounds for a further month. And the presence of TV cameras, discreetly positioned at the side of the stage with subdued lighting, confirmed that the concert was also being filmed for later transmission as part of the BBC Four’s Inside Classical series. A date well worth keeping in mind.
Paul Corfield Godfrey