United Kingdom Debussy, Pécou, Martinů: Alexandre Tharaud (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Marzena Diakun (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Millennium Centre, 27.1.2023. (PCG)
Claude Debussy – Prélude a l’après-midi d’une faune
Thierry Pécou – Cara Bali Concerto (UK première)
Bohuslav Martinů – Symphony No.3
The centrepiece of this programme, and the longest piece on it, was the UK première performance and broadcast of Thierry Pécou’s piano concerto Cara Bali. It was written in 2020 but not performed until post-pandemic days in Lyon last year with the same soloist as today. The title ‘Dear Bali’ – not translated in the programme – might mean ‘beloved’ rather than ‘expensive’ (although either could be applied with some justification).
The music is directly inspired by the Balinese gamelan, which has so influenced European composers ever since the days of Debussy. This score takes the gamelan as a starting point. A wide range of tuned percussion stretches across the back of the orchestra, including eight tuned gongs. Rather disappointingly, these were not employed solo as much as they are in, say, Vaughan Williams’s Eighth Symphony. Even so, their distinctive clangour rang out throughout the course of the half-hour concerto.
The gamelan influence was most evident in the first of the two movements (both given the identical tempo marking of Vivace) but was somewhat vitiated by the regularity of the tempo. Only contrasts of dynamic provided variety, and harmonies clashed in an almost arbitrary fashion. I was reminded in places of the sound-world of Messiaen’s Turangalîla where deeply sonorous trombone pedals underpin the textures. The second movement commenced in a similar fashion, but then after a catastrophic orchestral ‘clatter’ the piano launched out into a somewhat slower-paced and more meditative cadenza which provided some much-needed contrast. The orchestra slowly built from this and began a heavy-footed insistent march. Rhythms built to a climax of a deafening volume that I had last heard in this hall in a Revueltas film score some years ago. Towards the end, the piano, effectively drowned out, lapsed into complete silence only to re-emerge after an overwhelming catharsis with a final frenzied reappearance. That in turn led to a final coda in which blaring brass recalled motor horns in a manner that resembled nothing so much as a motorway pile-up. I am not quite clear how all this reflected the Balinese title of the concerto, but it was undeniably impressive and brought cheers from the audience both for the performers and the composer.
Before this blockbuster, we had been given a delicate and nuanced performance of Debussy’s Prélude a l’après-midi d’une faune, his own response to mystic exoticism before he had ever encountered Balinese influences. Flautist Matthew Featherstone launched it with a beautifully nuanced inflection. His almost hesitant and shy presentation of the principal theme only gradually evolved by inches into the richer nuances of the bigger-boned passages of the score. Marzena Diakun displayed with grace and carefully observed precision every facet of the score, including the sometimes-shrouded antique cymbals in the closing bars. It was perhaps surprising to hear cheers from the audience after what is generally a piece regarded and received in a more meditative fashion, but this rapturous performance was something rather special.
After the interval, we had an abrupt change of pace again with a rare performance of Martinů’s Third Symphony. I would suspect that most listeners – like myself – encounter the composer’s first five symphonies, written in as many years at the beginning of his American exile, as part of complete sets of the recorded symphonies, indeed almost as a continuous body of work. Hearing the Third Symphony in isolation in this manner pointed up the similarities with the others, like Martinů’s fondness for sprinkled pointillist chords in harp, piano and percussion, and his abrupt contrasts between timbres for one section and the next. It also highlighted some more individual features.
The first of the three movements is a very regular neo-classical structure. The standard sonata form of exposition, a (fairly brief) development, almost literal recapitulation and final coda are adhered to with a perhaps over-literal faithfulness. It is only enlivened by the manner in which the composer rings the changes from one orchestral sound to the next. But the second movement is something rather different. Martinů experimented with vague washes of impressionist textures and colour which anticipate his later developments in scores such as The Greek Passion. And when these elements return in the finale, contrasted with soaring stratospheric brasses and abruptly jagged fanfares, the parallels with that operatic masterpiece become overwhelmingly apparent. Again, the score, probably unfamiliar to most of the audience, proved to be immediately attractive. Leaving the hall, I overheard members of the audience saying that they would love to hear it again. Martinů has always been popular in Cardiff, ever since the heady days of the 1980s when Welsh National Opera mounted the first British performances of The Greek Passion. It proved so popular that some years later audiences voted it the production they most wished to see revived. Maybe WNO will one day oblige.
This was another exploratory programme from BBC Wales which make concertgoing in Cardiff so frequently an unexpected pleasure. One hopes that audience attendance might also increase, once the public transport system in the Welsh capital finally gets resolved (we are promised a new metro system next year!). All the same, there were a substantial number of listeners in the hall. In the meantime, the whole concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, is still available to hear from BBC Sounds for a further month. It will well repay investigation by both British and foreign audiences.
Paul Corfield Godfrey