Original Schumann and revised Ligeti in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Ligeti, Schumann: Anthony Marwood (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Ryan Bancroft (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Millennium Centre, 9.12.2022. (PCG)

Anthony Marwood (c) Pia Johnson

BeethovenCoriolan Overture, Op.62
Ligeti – Violin Concerto (revised 1992 version)
Schumann – Symphony No.4 in D minor (original 1841 version)

What might at first sight appear like a reversion to the time-honoured concert programme of overture, concerto and symphony proved in this instance to be anything but conventional. In the first place, the version of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony espoused by Ryan Bancroft (and before him by no less than Johannes Brahms) has a real rarity status, although it has long led a life on the periphery of the repertoire as part of complete boxed sets of the symphonies. I confess that, despite my admiration for the familiar 1851 revision – my favourite among the Schumann cycle – I had never previously encountered the original. In that earlier version, Schumann followed in the footsteps of Beethoven and Mendelssohn: he had sought to blend together the various movements of his symphony by thematic cross-references and passages designed to weld the individual sections into a unified whole. This produced startling results. For example, at the beginning of the second movement, the material of the opening was suddenly and arrestingly interrupted by a foreign chord to launch the Romanza. And the increased clarity of the scoring, before Schumann reinforced it, also proved that Schumann’s much-criticised orchestral sonorities are nothing like as ‘heavy’ as reputation would have us believe.

One interesting feature of the performance came with the repeated passages where Schumann passes phrases from one section of the strings to the next. There is a clear expectation that the sound will cross the stage in a stereophonic sweep from right to left. This, however, directly militates against the standard nineteenth-century layout of the orchestra, with the second violins isolated on the right of the stage. The symphony is therefore an example of an unorthodox arrangement of the players which Schumann clearly designed to obtain the effect he wanted. I have previously complained about the tendency of conductors to adopt modern string layouts on the stage, with all the violins bunched on the left, as sacrificing the intentions of nineteenth-century composers; and it is interesting to note that the arguments are not therefore all necessarily one way or another. Here the unexpected results of the standard modern arrangement were immediately apparent.

In the final section of the score, with its thrillingly overwhelming dramatic transition from scherzo to finale, I have to say I found that Schumann’s revisions of the orchestral textures did bear fruit. In particular, the Brucknerian chorale in the brass gives a more portentous impression, and the extraordinary passages where harmonies pile onto harmonies have an even more extreme effect. Perhaps a case might be made for conflating the two versions: the original version of the first two movements and the revised conclusion. Be that as it may, Ryan Bancroft certainly made a good case for his preference for the composer’s original thoughts. His subtle inflection of the ends of phrases helped to keep the occasionally rather rambling structure clear. He also gave us a compellingly impulsive rendition of the Coriolan overture, probably the work where Beethoven came closest to constructing the prototype of a symphonic poem with its dramatic structure paramount over the formal demands of an overture. The frequent silent pauses, where the composer momentarily halts as if to draw fresh breath, were not allowed to become metrically precise but added to the impact of the onward drive of the music.

Between these two performances, both revelatory in their different ways, Anthony Marwood joined the orchestra for a performance of Ligeti’s late Violin Concerto. I must immediately admit that I found almost nothing in this work to enjoy. It is not at all that I dislike Ligeti’s music. His early atmospheric clouds of sound are always fascinating, and his dramatic works like the Requiem or the opera Le Grand Macabre both have passages of sheer dramatic panache and a willingness to allow the comic results of orchestral avant garde effects to make their mark. His violin concerto shows a similar imagination, but without the focus of a programmatic background the effects sound unmotivated, and their purpose is left dangerously unclear.

The concerto originally had three movements; the addition two years later of a further two seems to have no evident reason. We have a contrast of scurrying motion from the soloist, and percussion adds highlights to individual notes in the line (not always as well co-ordinated as they might have been). This leads to an extended rhapsodic slow movement, with a folk-like theme drawn from one of Ligeti’s early (1953) Bagatelles. There a gradual, rather desultory development with the theme transferred to four ocarinas (here assigned to the orchestral clarinettists) where the composer himself indicated that the imprecise intonation was intended to have a ‘dirty sound’. The effect was not humorous in the way that I imagine Ligeti envisioned, merely uncomfortable. The increased incidence of sharp percussive attacks in the later movements seemed to be simply empty interruptions of a cadenza (which Ligeti asked the soloist to improvise), and the finale with presumably ironic echoes of virtuosity from earlier eras failed to provide any structure. I have to say that most of the audience, possibly less familiar with the common coin of avant garde techniques, seemed to thoroughly enjoy the novelty of the sounds. Anthony Marwood coped well with the sustained lines of the frequently stratospheric register of his part, and the reduced orchestra responded alertly to Bancroft’s lead. Despite the sterling and indeed coruscating efforts of the performers, I am very much afraid the result left me cold, which is doubtless my fault. Recordings of the work have been enthusiastically received on this site by other reviewers.

The audience in the Hoddinott Hall was very nearly full for what could hardly be described as a popular programme – at a time when Cardiff Council are threatening to curtail the activities of classical music in Wales’s capital city by selling off its main concert hall and citing the reduced demand for concerts. Moreover, on the same night the Welsh National Opera chorus and orchestra were giving a performance of Handel’s Messiah in the threatened St David’s Hall, to what I am told was close to a capacity house.

I can only repeat what I said in my last review from Cardiff, where I wrote about other factors. Online petitions have been set up to register complaints not only with Cardiff Council but with the Senedd. I would urgently suggest that all those concerned about the proposals should seek the petitions out and sign them before plans become too far advanced. The council are due to meet to discuss the proposals on 15 December, in what Private Eye has quite correctly described as a clear attempt to stampede a decision. In an ominous move, they have already voted to block proposals for a public consultation. Readers are encouraged to take action rapidly, before it is simply too late.

The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC’s Radio 3 in Concert series on 18 January 2023, and will be available on BBC Sounds for a full month thereafter. There will be those who wish to make the further acquaintance of the Ligeti concerto, or indeed the other pieces.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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