Martyn Brabbins achieves symbiosis with the audience in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov, Nielsen, Williams: Liya Petrova (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 9.3.2024. (PCG)

Martyn Brabbins conducts violinist Liya Petrova and the BBC NOW © Amy Campbell-Nichols

Grace WilliamsElegy
Nielsen – Violin Concerto, Op.33
Rachmaninov – Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Last October, Martyn Brabbins resigned from his prestigious position as music director of English National Opera. His reason was the collaboration of the company’s management in policies which dismantle the structure of the organisation; they made a possibly futile attempt to come to terms with cuts imposed by the Arts Council of Great Britain under threat of withdrawal of funding.

At the beginning of the concert, Brabbins made a personal statement. He explained in greater detail his dismay at the current attitudes to arts funding in Government circles, and their apparent indifference to the future of live music in the country. He did not get a microphone, so probably not everyone heard him clearly, but the gist was that the ‘symbiosis’ between performers and audience was a vital ingredient of music-making. Without it, the art would inevitably face extinction. He was quite right, as the warm cheers in response immediately testified. But his argument gained even greater force from the performance which followed.

This began with a very still and contemplative performance of Grace Williams’s early Elegy for string orchestra. She wrote it soon after she had finished her studies with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Egon Wellesz in the 1930s. It is a closely argued musical construction, much more than simply meditative or indeed elegiac. Its rich harmonies clearly demonstrate a tense underlying unease which nevertheless finds no reason to raise its voice. It was correctly played here with a substantial body of strings. That ensured a weight of tone achieved without the need to force the volume, and the final resolution into a still conclusion was beautifully done. By the way, let me repeat my entreaties: this orchestra should undertake a comprehensive series of recordings of Grace Williams’s oeuvre. That would include not only the many works recently restored to circulation from her bottom drawer, but new versions of such marvellous scores as the Penillion.

In contrast with the subdued Elegy, Carl Nielsen’s rather rarely heard Violin Concerto got a lively and bubbling rendering by the Bulgarian soloist Liya Petrova. In this unusually structured work, the extended opening cadenza and slow introduction lead to a large-scale Allegro cavalleresco. Next, a longer slow movement leads to a faster scherzando one. In the end, the whole may best be viewed as Nielsen’s own tribute to his own instrument and its Danish folk traditions.

Petrova fully entered into that spirit of the work. Her quiet ruminations at the opening slowly opened into a fiery attack on the folk-dance elements of the second section. Her display of fireworks at the end was jaw-droppingly ferocious. The audience burst into spontaneous applause. Clearly Nielsen made a conscious decision to have the second half of the concerto seemingly repeat the original procedure in a more relaxed fashion. The final Rondo. Allegretto scherzando was folksily laid back rather than agitated. But the final cadenza – dying down to almost nothing before a single violent orchestral chord – does seem somewhat arbitrarily offbeat. Whatever one’s doubts about the music, Petrova’s performance was stunningly communicative. Her dynamic range is massive, and there was never any prospect of her tone drowning in the exuberant orchestration. But then in the slow movement she spins an exquisite silvery tone; it enchanted and kept the audience is a state of rapt stillness – a symbiosis indeed.

There was an encore: a witty modern piece – 2015, I think – by Aleksey Igudesman entitled Funk the String. It combines the sheer panache of a Paganini study with modern techniques such as rhythmically striking the body of the violin. The audience would have appreciated being told what the delightfully humorous piece, a really imaginative choice, actually was. It again brought them to their feet cheering.

After the interval, we were then treated to what I can only describe as a coruscating performance of Rachmaninov’s tumultuous Second Symphony. There were no damaging cuts that used to be inflicted on the score. The exception was the composer’s marked repeat of the first movement exposition, which dangerously prolongs what is already a massively lengthy structure. The whole performance simply defied criticism. It bubbled with excitement from first to last and allowed itself to wallow in every luxurious paragraph of Rachmaninov’s romantic excesses. Every detail of the complex score – Rachmaninov at his most Straussianly exuberant – came across with clarity and precision. The string tone was magnificent, not only in the richness of the purple passages but also in the delicate dignity of the filigree figurations that proliferate in the accompaniments, and the almost etiolated poise of the quieter moments. Special credit must go to the horns, who not only launched the scherzo with fizzing bravura, but provided a palpably sinister undertone of successive stopped notes to suggest the vicious menace lurking beneath the surface of the tarantella finale. Here again one experienced Brabbins’s sense of symbiosis between the orchestra and the audience. There was a real sense of the frisson of emotion flowing from the body of the hall to the stage during the romantic climaxes of the slow movement, and I saw some people in tears.

The size of the audience also deserves mention. On the same day, the Millennium Centre had already accommodated a capacity audience for a matinee performance of the musically and dramatically stupendous Welsh National Opera production of Death and Venice in the auditorium next door (review here). Even so, the Hoddinott Hall was packed for this concert. I could count the empty seats on the fingers of one hand. Who dares to allege that there is no demand for classical music in South Wales?

The concert is being relayed on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 14 March, and available thereafter on BBC Sounds. I hope that the broadcast will include Martyn Brabbins’s opening speech to the audience. The BBC do, after all, annually provide us with a relay of the self-congratulatory speech from the podium at the Last Night of the Proms. Even if they do not, the ‘Brabbins manifesto’ deserves publication as widely as possible. Audiences need to appreciate what is under threat here.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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