Love and Loss in Cardiff from Tomáš Hanus and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, R. Strauss, Brahms: Chen Reiss (soprano), Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Tomáš Hanus (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff. 29.10.2023. (PCG)

Chen Reiss © Paul Marc Mitchell

TchaikovskyRomeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy
R. Strauss Four Last Songs
Brahms – Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

St David’s Hall closed unexpectedly amid concerns about the safety of its roof. The BBC’s Hoddinott Hall stepped into the breach to accommodate this scheduled concert by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera. With seating capacity at a maximum, it just managed to accommodate the original audience for this Sunday afternoon matinée. One might have hoped that they take advantage of the new venue to record the event for broadcast under the terms of their arrangements with Welsh National Opera. They seem to have taken preciously little advantage of that over the past few years. This performance would have been a considerable improvement on a good many of the relays from Continental and other foreign stations, which occupy BBC Radio 3 during the night-time schedules and increasingly seem to be taking over the former slot for afternoon concerts. (BBC National Orchestra of Wales have no afternoon concerts advertised for the remainder of the current season; they were once regular events.)

The orchestra relished their liberation from the confines of the operatic pit. They certainly gave a dramatic start to the programme with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. His sudden jabs and emphases were brought out from the very beginning. The string tone in the love theme soared effortlessly above the excited textures and sometimes startlingly violent percussion. This was not a performance notable for subtle nuances. The violence of the striving families and the star-crossed lovers was presented in the full range of orchestral colours that the composer clearly envisaged. The abrupt closing chords can often seem like an unwanted crowd-pleasing public intrusion into the funereal lament at the conclusion. But here the purposefully powerful effect brought cheers from the audience.

Performances of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs have tended in more recent years to be dominated by the example of the rich tones of dramatic sopranos such as Jessye Norman. Yet there is also a long tradition of smaller lyrical voices such as Lisa della Casa, Gundula Janowitz and Soile Isokoski. Chen Reiss, from Bavarian State Opera, has not the ample reserves of Kirsten Flagstad, who gave the first performance. But in the resonant acoustic of the Hoddinott Hall, Chen’s voice blossomed into the more impassioned sections of the score, and she was well able to encompass Strauss’s extended lines. In only one phrase in the third song (‘Beim Schlafengehen’) did she need to take an unwritten breath. She was assisted by the flowing speeds which Thomáš Hanus adopted, though he also managed to evoke a sense of stillness and tragedy in the slower pages. There was Nicholas Korth’s superbly poised horn solo and David Adams’s rapturously soaring ecstatic violin solo. The final song (‘Im Abendrot’), as it always should, brought tears to the eyes. WNO are also to be congratulated for putting in their handsome programme the complete texts and translations into English and Welsh.

After the interval, Brahms’s First Symphony might have seemed like more conventional fare, but Hanus brought an urgency to the interpretation that gripped the listener from the stormy opening bars onward. The omission of the first-movement repeat seemed justified, and in the finale Hanus brought unexpected sidelights into the writing. Dvořák was often accused of imitating Brahms in some of his earlier scores, but in sections of the final movement here Brahms seemed to be positively anticipating Dvořák in his lively relished sprung rhythms. Hanus also was not afraid to adjust the tempo as the music progressed. That helped bring shape to structures that can ossify if kept in too strict a time-frame. The horns in the Brucknerian episodes sounded magnificent. The precisely articulated playing, violins in particular, was a delight throughout the whole of this concert. The cheers from the capacity audience were justly loud and prolonged.

The WNO Orchestra gave an equally superb performances earlier this year in Janáček and Smetana. They now seem to be on an exceptionally high plane. Their current schedules include a performance of Mozart’s Requiem on 21 April. It is still advertised to take place at St David’s Hall. I hope that the BBC can accommodate it on that date, and that they will then have their microphones at the ready.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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