Mozart and Strauss, and the End of Term

Yesterday (Friday 15th June) was officially the last day of teaching term at Cardiff University. I think most of our students toddled off  some time ago when their last exams were finished,  so for us on the staff side the teaching term has fizzled out gradually rather than go out with a bang. Yesterday I met with a couple of next year’s project students to give them some background reading to do over the summer and that was that for another year of undergraduate teaching.

There was something of an “end-of-term” feeling too to last night’s concert at St David’s Hall, which was also broadcast live on BBC Radio 3; you can listen to it yourself by clicking on that second link. This was not only the last concert of the 2011/12 season by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, but also  last concert at St David’s Hall to be conducted by Thierry Fischer, who has been principal conductor for the BBC NOW for the past six years. Next year Thomas Søndergård will take over.The concert turned out to be a fitting finale to the season and a fine farewell to Thierry Fischer.

The first item on the agenda was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 played by none other than the wonderful Angela Hewitt.  I wasn’t all that familiar with this piece beforehand, and was surprised to see such a large orchestra on stage before the start. Apparently  this work was the first time Mozart had used clarinets in a piano concerto, and the larger force than I’d normally have associated with a Mozart piece of this type gave the performance a much more opulent sound than I’d expected. It’s an interesting work, with a particularly fine Andante second movement which is both sombre and expansive sandwiched between two quicksilver Allegro movements, the last being a kind of rondo. Angela Hewitt played it with crisp elegance and perfect articulation. Some people find her playing a bit fussy and punctilious, and indeed there were times when I thought the performance could have had a bit more fire in it, but for my part it was a treat to get the chance to see a great artist in the flesh; she has an engaging presence on stage too, clearly enjoying the performance, and smiling from time to time in appreciation at the orchestral playing. We even got a nice little solo encore, which is quite unusual for a live broadcast from St David’s.

Then there was an interval so we could all check the football score, and guzzle a quick glass of overpriced wine before returning to hear the Alpine SymphonyOp. 64 by Richard Strauss. If the orchestra for Part 1 had been large by Mozartian standards, then this one was immense! Well over a hundred musicians, with a huge brass section (supplemented by many more standing off-stage and just visible to me through an open door), harps, percussion (including cow bells and a wind machine), and some unusual instruments including a Heckelphone (what the heck?…). Oh, and the fine organ in St David’s Hall got a full workout too.

Strictly speaking, this is not actually a symphony; it’s more of a tone poem. But Strauss was rather good at them and this one is a wonderful evocation of a day’s journey in the Bavarian Alps, from a resplendent dawn to a tranquil sunset, with summits to be scaled, thunderstorms to be endured, glaciers to be traversed, and so on. It’s certainly a very vivid piece of programmatic music.

As you might have inferred from huge band gathered on stage, this is a work that gets very loud, especially when the organist literally pulls out all the stops. What was especially fine about the performance was that, although the musicians of BBC NOW weren’t afraid to give it some welly whenever it was called for, their playing never became wild or ragged. I don’t know what it sounded like on the radio, but it was a thrilling experience to be in the hall.  I lost count of the number of towering crescendo passages, and just let the waves of wonderful noise wash over me. At times I could feel it through my feet too.

There were cheers at the end, and a standing ovation for Thierry Fischer not only for this performance but for his service to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.  And that brought the term and the season to a close; both start again in late September 2012. There are some cracking concerts in store in the next season in St David’s Hall.

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6 Responses to “Mozart and Strauss, and the End of Term”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    It was a very good concert – I listened at home on the radio.

    I didn’t really know the Mozart piece, which is an unusual statement for one of his later piano concertos. I’ve heard some of the later piano concertos very many times. It was a real pleasure to hear Angela Hewitt, and especially playing Bach in her encore (a piano arrangement by Wilhelm Kempff of the Siciliano from Bach’s Flute Sonata in E Flat, or so we were told over the radio).

    My favourite piece from the concert was Strauss’s wonderful Alpine Symphony. It’s surprising that the glorious sunrise is so little known compared to the one in Also Sprach Zarathustra. It is a very well crafted work and very enjoyable.

    It’s interesting that the off-stage musicians played behind a doorway last night. I once heard Ein Alpensinfonie in the Albert Hall in London when the off-stage performers played from the gallery at the top of the hall, which created a very dramatic effect. I can recall the off-stage brass musicians playing from sections of the audience seating at the side of St. David’s Hall at one performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the B.B.C. National Orchestra of Wales in Cardiff many years ago. Something similar was adopted for some brass musicians in a performance in the hall by the same orchestra of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. Having the off-stage musicians visible adds to the drama.

    • telescoper Says:

      I have also heard the Alpine Symphony in the Albert Hall, as you describe, at the Proms many years ago. I wonder if it was the same concert?

      I remember hearing Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question at the Albert Hall, with musicians playing from positions around the gallery. “Noises off” and how they’re done in concerts were discussed at great length during the interval last night…

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        I think the Alpine Symphony concert I attended at the Albert Hall was from the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Slatkin several years ago.

      • telescoper Says:

        Mine was at least 20 years ago, so probably not the same one…

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        No, clearly not. I only attended my first B.B.C. Prom when I moved to London several years ago. My Proms experiences before that were restricted to radio broadcasts.

    • telescoper Says:

      ps. The Angela Hewitt encore definitely sounded like Bach, although I couldn’t place it as I listened.

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