The Hallé’s intriguing juxtapositions of Beethoven and Sibelius in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Beethoven, Tarrodi: Hyeyoon Park (violin), Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Hallé Orchestra / Dalia Stasevska (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 20.5.2023. (PCG)

Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Hyeyoon Park (violin), and Benjamin Grosvenor (piano) © Bill Lam

SibeliusKarelia: Suite, Op.11; Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105
Beethoven – Triple Concerto in C, Op.56
Andrea TarrodiBirds of Paradise

This was a programme of real contrasts and startling juxtapositions, some more unexpected than others. It must have seemed like an excellent idea: a series of performances of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Benjamin Grosvenor. They are among the most celebrated winners of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition over the last two decades. The concert in Cardiff with the Hallé Orchestra was one such performance; different orchestras are scheduled to play across the country over the next two months. That has been derailed by Nicola Benedetti’s illness. Hyeyoon Park has an enviable reputation as a chamber recitalist but lacks the superstar appellation of her two fellow soloists. (Benedetti still features on the cover of the programme.)

In any event, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is a slight oddity. The soloists would make up a conventional piano trio, but the writing for the individual instruments is as much about the contrast between them as about their performance as a unified chamber ensemble. The cello, often in the leading role, introduces much of the thematic material only then taken up and expanded by the violin and piano. It must have seemed tempting to gather the three players around the piano keyboard to enhance the interplay between them. But that exacerbated the problems of balance when the modern grand already has a tendency to overpower the strings. Benjamin Grosvenor’s piano, with the lid fully raised, even seemed to obscure Hyeyoon Park’s more delicate playing. The effect may have been less evident had she and Sheku Kanneh-Mason been placed to the right of the piano rather than to the left. As it was, sometimes one almost got the impression of a piano concerto with chamber accompaniment rather than an assembly of equals.

The concerto is slated for performances elsewhere over the next month: Edinburgh, 26 May; Glasgow, 27 May; Basingstoke, 7 June; London, 8 June. I would earnestly suggest that consideration be given at other venues to a re-arrangement of the platform. Even so, this well-considered performance rightly brought cheers from a very nearly capacity audience. The players rewarded their listeners with an encore, which for once required no introduction (not that it got one). The Irish melody known as ‘tune from County Derry’ or ‘Londonderry Air’ was not one of Beethoven’s arrangements of British folksongs for piano trio. (There is no evidence of the melody before around 1860, and its origins remain a matter of dispute and some controversy.) The chromatic harmonisation seemed to owe something to Percy Grainger’s treatment of the tune; that lent it some air of a palm court trio, but it is a lovely tune all the same.

Dalia Stasevska © Bill Lam

Before the concerto, Dalia Stasevska put the orchestra through their paces in the three-movement suite from Sibelius’s Karelia. I think she quite properly enhanced the sense of mystery at the beginning. She took the Moderato very slowly, and emphasised the contrasts among the horns playing with open bells and then stopped to produce an echo effect. (A momentary blip in the tuning towards the end was excusable.) She also resisted any temptation to rush the Ballade. She allowed the folksong-like melody to unfold at its own natural pace. All that allowed the final Alla marcia its full measure of infectious enthusiasm.

The concert concluded with a work from the other end of Sibelius’s career, his Seventh Symphony. The performance really raised the roof, the brass challenging heaven in the acoustics of the hall, and plenty of black tone from the trombones and bassoons. The conductor had superb control over the many subtle shifts of speed in the course of the single movement, in such a way that she maintained the unity of the symphony. When the piece had its first performances, much was made of Sibelius’s putting fast and slow elements in a single movement. The commentators seemed to have overlooked Rachmaninov’s pioneering such a fusion in his Second Symphony nearly twenty years earlier. It was simply an idea that was in the air at the time.

The contrast between Sibelius’s early and late work and the Beethoven concerto was well designed. But it was not the only surprise in the programme. Right before the symphony we heard Bird of Paradise by Swedish composer Andrea Tarrrodi. Mike Wheeler’s programme note says that the piece was inspired by an episode in Sir David Attenborough’s BBC series Life on Earth. As those who read Radio Times may recall, broadcasts of Attenborough’s documentaries almost invariably bring howls of protest about the use (usually said to be abuse) of background music on the soundtracks.

Such protesters would have had a field day with the second section of this work. The orchestra bursts into a series of Ravel-like imitations of birdsong and other natural noises of the New Guinea forests, along with the sound of rushing water and wind. The opening section consists of what appears to be an extended and decorated cadence. The abrupt change from one chord to the next after some two minutes had a riveting effect enhanced by impressionist clouds of atmosphere. But that was as nothing when the last suspended chord of Tarrodi’s piece moved without any perceptible pause straight into the opening bars of the Sibelius. That denied the audience a chance to show their separate appreciation for the very beautiful orchestral effects that Tarrodi conjured. And the sudden change in style made the opening of the symphony sound more conventional than it really is. I hope this does not presage further experiments when a more modern piece serves as an unsolicited curtain-raiser for an established work.

This really is a rather incidental objection, and the performers are to be congratulated on a superb concert. This is the first time in some few years, due to the pandemic, that I have had the chance to hear the Hallé in Cardiff, and I look forward to more return visits.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Leave a Comment