John Adams’s Harmonielehre raises the roof in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ives, Szymanowski, John Adams: Bomsori Kim (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Ryan Bancroft (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 20.4.2023. (PCG)

Ryan Bancroft conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Charles IvesCentral Park in the Dark; The Unanswered Question
Karol Szymanowski – Violin Concerto No.1
John AdamsHarmonielehre

I am completely mystified precisely why, nearly forty years after its première, John Adams’s Harmonielehre has failed to establish itself as a staple of the orchestral repertory or at the very least as a popular favourite. This was the first of his orchestral works in symphonic form, followed among others by Naïve and Sentimental music and the choral On the Transmigration of Souls. The work surely placed a marker for the ability of what many dismissed as ‘musical minimalism’ to encompass pieces on a grand scale. I can well imagine it might have had more effect had it been simply named Symphony No.1. As it is, the forbiddingly academic German title ‘harmonic instruction’ must have deterred potential audiences from investigating some of the most joyously celebratory compositions of its era. The very opening – an ear-catching evocation of a rusting naval destroyer emerging from the waters of San Francisco Bay – starts the piece with a real wallop. The extended figurations in woodwind and marimbas then slowly give way to more melodic phrases. There is that hardy romantic scoring combination of horns and high cellos – to the extent that Rachmaninov is to be heard lurking in the shadows.

The second movement, The Anfortas Wound, draws even closer to European models. It is not so much Wagner’s Parsifal with its crippled and maimed king as the world of Mahler. The closing bars clearly cite his famous wrenching discord at the climax of the opening movement of the unfinished Tenth Symphony. The finale begins with dappled sunlight in the manner of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. It develops a progressive head of steam with increasingly intricate orchestral figurations. They must be absolutely gruelling for the players, but they arouse increasing excitement and intoxication in the listener, and progressively lead to the height of ecstasy before the abrupt and frenzied plunge onto the final chord. The small audience, who had barely managed to control their applause at the end of each of the preceding movements, burst into cheers and prolonged applause. Ryan Bancroft and the pleased but clearly exhausted orchestra acknowledged it for several minutes.

And that was just the second half of a concert. In the first half, we had an equally life-enhancing experience in the shape of Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto played by the young talented Korean violinist Bomsori Kim. Now this work, like the Adams, does not simply play itself but demands keen concentration and an ear for balance from all concerned. The score is packed full of subtle details. Most of them go almost unnoticed in the general atmosphere but each element is essential in the creation of the whole. At the same time, these details should not be allowed to intrude upon, or draw attention away from, the soloist’s often rapturous soaring lines and occasional bursts of fearsome virtuosity.

Balances possible in the recording studio can be very difficult to get in live performance unless the conductor makes a conscious effort to suppress the orchestral contribution. Ryan Bancroft certainly did not do that: the climaxes were nearly as overwhelming as in the Adams score later on, with a resonance not always easy to achieve in this hall’s acoustic. Even so, he had an ear for the essential quality of the writing, and the deceptively penetrating tone of the soloist’s instrument. That meant that many elements which can easily go missing were clearly defined, including the sometimes surprising prominence Szymanowski gave to the orchestral piano. Quite apart from Bomsori Kim’s exceptionally clear command of the elaborate figurations, she showed a fearless accuracy of tuning in the many stratospheric passages.

The programme had begun with two pioneering works by the ultimate American pioneering composer. Charles Ives’s two pieces for orchestra The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark were written in the 1906-1909 and revised in the early 1930s, but not performed until 1946. For some reason they were played in the order opposite to what the composer recommended in a note to the Central Park score. It perhaps made sense with the isolated trumpet and flutes in the chamber orchestration of The Unanswered Question.

Both pieces centre around slow-moving string chords in irregular harmonies and rhythms which are interrupted by outside musical effects. There are natural sounds and then night-club roisterings in Central Park, and anxious questionings between trumpet and flutes in the ‘contemplation of a Serious Matter’, as Ives termed it in his note on the scores. These interruptions are again in totally different rhythms from the sounds of stillness evoked by the strings. The effects are totally unprecedented for music written as early as 1906, and I seriously wonder how much of the freewheeling innovation was introduced in the revision. Certainly, the jazz-inflected sounds from the night club near Central Park seem to have more of the flavour of the 1920s than of the ragtime era. But then Ives was always experimenting with music in different time signatures which proceeded simultaneously but independently, so that general concept may well have originated earlier. Bancroft, had to cope with various orchestral lines moving at different speeds, but managed to hold everything together, even when the strings in Central Park were proceeding at an unperturbed Adagio while the distant night club instruments were accelerating from Allegretto con spirito to a frenzied Con fuoco.

Although the concert was to be repeated the following night in Swansea, for some unfathomable reason the programme informed us that the Central Park movement was to be omitted. But then the same programme advised us that the concert was being broadcast live, whereas in fact it had been postponed until the following Wednesday. It is to be featured on BBC Radio 3, available thereafter on BBC Sounds, and well worth a listen.

Still on the subject of changes to BBC schedules, I was due to review the concert on 6 May by BBC National Orchestral and Chorus of Wales. We were promised a very rare and welcome opportunity to hear Stanford’s Te Deum and Elegiac Ode. But the date clashes with some other event in London, so the whole concert has been cancelled – not just postponed, cancelled. One hopes it will be rescheduled, and soon, once King Charles III has finished with his coronation.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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