Archive for May 28, 2011

Final Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2011 by telescoper

I decided to round off the working week last night with a trip to St David’s Hall in Cardiff to hear the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the baton of guest conductor Jac van Steen in a programme of music by Richard Strauss and Anton Bruckner. Both pieces featured in the concert are longstanding favourites of mine and I’d been looking forward to the event for some time. The concert was billed Final Thoughts as each piece was in fact the respective composer’s last.

First up were the Vier Letzte Lieder (“Four Last Songs“). Richard Strauss had a particularly wonderful gift for writing music for the female voice and these pieces are perfect demonstrations of his art. Only published posthumously, they were never performed in Strauss’ lifetime but they quickly established themselves as concert favourites. In fact there’s no evidence that they were ever intended to form a set; the last – which happens to be my favourite, Im Abendrot, a setting of a poem by von Eichendorff, was completed before Strauss decided to set the other three, which are poems by Herman Hesse. There is more unity in compositional approach in the first three of the four, but nothing for me matches the sheer gorgeousness of the last. I freely admit that I quite often burst into tears listening to it, it’s so beautiful. I posted a favourite version elsewhere on this blog, and I have six different versions on CD.

Last night’s performance featured Swedish mezzo soprano Katarina Karnéus who has a very fine voice. They were performed at a slightly brisker tempo than is often the case (which is no bad thing) and the orchestra was in good form. The only problem was that the singer was standing so far back into the orchestra that she had difficulty projecting her voice, particularly since she was almost behind the conductor from where I was sitting. Some of her singing was barely audible, but when she did break through she brought out the beauty of Strauss music in fine style. Overall, a very nice performance. But no, I didn’t burst into tears this time.

After the interval we had Anton Bruckner‘s monumental Symphony No. 9, which was unfinished at Bruckner’s death in 1896. Insufficient material was recovered after the composer’s death to enable a reconstruction of the missing 4th movement, so this work is generally performed in its incomplete state with only three movements. Even so, it’s an immense work in both length and ambition. The majestic first movement (marked Feierlich, Misterioso; solemn & mysterious) with its soaring themes and thunderous climaxes always puts me in mind of a mountaineering expedition, with wonderful vistas to experience but with danger lurking at every step. At times it’s rapturously beautiful, at times terrifying. It’s not actually about mountaineering, of course – Bruckner meant this symphony to be an expression of his religious faith, which, in the latter years of his life must have been pretty shaky if the music is anything to go by.

The second movement (Scherzo) is all juddering rhythms, jagged themes and harsh dissonances reminiscent (to me) of Shostakovich. It alternates between menacing, playful and cryptic; the frenzied animation of central Trio section is especially disconcerting.

The last movement  (Adagio)  begins restlessly, with an unaccompanied violin theme and then becomes more obviously religious in character in various passages of hymn-like quality, still punctuated by stark crescendi. In this movement Bruckner doffs his cap in the direction of Richard Wagner,  especially when the four Wagner tubas appear, and the movement reaches yet another climax with the brass bellowing out the initial violin theme. This dies away and the movement comes to an unresolved, poignant conclusion. With a long pause in silence as if to say “that’s all he wrote”, the concert came to an end.

Although I’ve loved this work for many years I’ve only ever heard it on CD before last night.  The live performance definitely adds another dimension and I enjoyed it enormously. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales may not be the Berlin Philharmonic but I was generally very impressed, especially with the strings, who brought warmth and colour to a piece some people find a bit cold. On the other hand, on the way out people were raving about the four Wagner tubas, which I thought sounded ill-at-ease and unconvincing.

The concert was broadcast live last night on BBC Radio 3 (you can here it here for the next week or so), which is why it had to start at 7pm. A crazy decision by the controller of BBC Radio3, in my opinion, to insist that live concerts all start so early. There being no time to go home first, I just went straight there from work. I was deeply disappointed to see such a low turnout – the Hall was less than half full. Curiously, though, when I had tried to book a ticket just a week or so ago the vast majority of seats were sold and I had to settle for a place upstairs. I’m told that large numbers of seats are kept back for corporate guests and for BBC employees, of whom there are many in Cardiff as Auntie Beeb is a big employer here. Since these folk haven’t paid anything they often don’t turn up. The effect of this is that no matter how interesting the programme is, how fine the venue is, and how cheap the tickets are (top price is less than £30), the place is often pretty empty. It’s a shame.

Anyway, the one advantage of a 7pm start is that the concerts finish quite early, just after nine in this case. It was still twilight when I emerged from St David’s Hall, so I decided to take a crepuscular perambulation along the Taff embankment past the cricket ground at Sophia Gardens (where England are currently playing a Test Match against Sri Lanka). When I got near the SWALEC Stadium I was beset on all sides by a number of bats, no doubt feasting on insects flying over the river. They didn’t bother me at all. I find them fascinating creatures, in fact. At one point however, one of the critters flew into my leg at about knee level and fell back onto the path, apparently stunned. I stopped to find out whether it was badly hurt but after a bit of a struggle getting airborne it flapped off into the murk. It was a tiny little thing and, judging by the poor standard of its navigation, I suspect it was merely a trainee.

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