Stravinsky, Dutilleux and Beethoven at RWCMD

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that, although I’ve lived in Cardiff for almost five years now, last night was the first time I’ve ever been inside the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which is situated by the side of Bute Park. The occasion that took me there was a concert in the fine Dora Stoutzker Hall by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera  under the baton of Lothar Koenigs. When I arrived for a quick glass of wine before the concert there was some nice jazz playing in the lobby which made me which I’d got there sooner, but that wouldn’t have been possible because there was a leaving do had to attend beforehand. I didn’t catch the names of the musicians but I guess they were students from the College.

Anyway, the first half of the programme for the evening consisted of a short piece called Ragtime by Igor Stravinsky and a longer suite called Mystère de l’instant by Henri Dutilleux. The first item was played by a small subset of the Orchestra and involved only 11 instruments, including a cymbalom. Written around 1918, Ragtime is Stravinsky’s personal reaction to his experience of American popular music. It’s a quirky and entertaining piece, clearly influenced by ragtime and jazz, especially in Stravinsky’s deployment of  lots of interesting rhythmic devices, whilst remaining quintessentially Stravinsky.

After a bit of reorganization of the stage a larger section of the orchestra, still including the cimbalom, returned to play the Dutilleux piece.  This was another work that was new to me. I found it absolutely gripping. It consists of a series 10 relatively short pieces played without interruption, each of which has its own distinct identity. Overall, this work put my in mind of a gallery full  abstract paintings, each having it’s own palette and texture, and the whole effect being rather cryptic and undefinable. You can actually hear a performance on Youtube here, which I heartily recommend if you’ve never heard this work in full before.

The hall at RWCMD is much smaller that at St David’s and with a seat just a few rows back from the stage I had no difficulty reading the music the violinists were playing. It’s clearly a very demanding work, pushing the limits of not only the string instruments but also the rest of orchestra. When the interval arrived I nipped to the gents for some much-needed micturition and found two of the musicians doing the same thing. I asked if the piece was as difficult to play as it looked from the music. He said “yes”…

One of the excellent things about Lothar Koenig’s choice of programme for the Orchestra of WNO is that he’s very good at choosing contrasting pieces that work very well together. After the interval we returned to a much more familiar work, the Symphony No. 4 in B flat Op. 60 by Ludwig van Beethoven. This piece is much better known than the others we heard last night but it’s worth saying a couple of things about it. The first is that Beethoven wrote it extremely quickly, over a few months in 1806. I find that pretty astonishing in itself for such a beautifully crafted piece. The other thing is that its opening – an elegaic Adagio passage – would have seemed very unconventional at the time it was written, even more so because it suddenly leaps into a jaunty Allegro for the rest of the first movement. There’s a tranquil Adagio second movement, but the rest of the symphony is filled with that sense of purposeful exuberance in which Beethoven was something of a specialist.

The 4th Symphony isn’t as well known as the 3rd and the 5th, perhaps because it’s a bit less fiery, but the full Orchestra of Welsh National Opera gave it the  vigorous and characterful performance it deserves, while the rest of the programme reminded us that classical music didn’t end with Beethoven!

And that was the end of a very enjoyable evening. Leaving the RWCMD I discovered that the gate into Bute Park was still open – the gates usually close at twilight – so I was able to take the short cut home to Pontcanna.

3 Responses to “Stravinsky, Dutilleux and Beethoven at RWCMD”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    It sounds like an interesting concert.

    It’s interesting that the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera performed music by Dutilleux: I’ve heard quite a lot by Dutilleux from Cardiff on the radio over the past couple of years, but that has been from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thierry Fischer.

    I have to confess that I’ve never heard Beethoven’s excellent Fourth Symphony played live in a concert. I’ve heard all of the other eight Beethoven symphonies in concerts by various orchestras in various concert halls at various times, but, curiously, never the Fourth. I should correct this some time by looking out for forthcoming performances.

    Yes, Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony has an unusual structure in that the first movement begins slowly but then suddenly increases momentum. This is similar to what Beethoven later did in his Seventh Symphony. Haydn also used this technique in some of his symphonies, particularly the late ones.

    • telescoper Says:

      It struck me listening to the 4th symphony that if somebody else had written it, it would be considered a masterpiece. Appearing as it does among the other Beethoven works it’s rather overshadowed. It’s incredible to think that he wrote this piece, the overture for Fidelio, three Razumovsky quartets and most of the 5th symphony in the same year. It’s possible he might even have been submitted for the REF…

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, that’s absolutely right. Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony tends to get neglected because of the astonishing quality of the other works he wrote around the same time, and as a symphony when it is compared to Beethoven’s revolutionary Third and Fifth symphonies.

      I can’t imagine Beethoven would have done well in a university REF: the Fourth Symphony was first performed at a small private concert, so it would not have had much “impact”. That amazing concert in December 1808, when the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasia were premiered, clashed with a better-attended Haydn concert, so it too would been lacking in “impact”.

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