Beethoven and Strauss at St David’s Hall 

I’m a bit late writing about this because the last two days have been very busy, but on Wednesday evening (22nd February) I went to a concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The first half of the programme featured two pieces by Beethoven, starting with a piece that was entirely new to me: his rarely heard concert overture Zur Namensfeier. It’s just a short piece (7 minutes long) and isn’t among Beethoven’s best compositions, but it did at least get the Philharmonia warmed up for the main event.

The Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) wasn’t immediately popular when it was first performed in 1809 – perhaps because it was considered a bit grandiose – but is now firmly established as one of the pinnacles of the repertoire. The soloist was the superb Pierre-Laurent Aimard who gave us an electrifying performance, though I did feel that some of the transitions from soloist to orchestra could have been a little smoother.

The second half of the programme was devoted to a single work by Richard Strauss, for which the orchestra was augmented  by the addition of brass and a larger percussion section.

For many people, the tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra is irrevocably associated with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey  as well as the BBC coverage of the Apollo moon landings. The opening section, representing sunrise (“as the individual enters the world, or the world enters the individual”), was memorably featured in both. Perhaps that association is why the opening section of this work sounds very modern, when it was actually written in 1896.

This is a spine-tingling piece to hear live, especially with the timpani, trumpets and splendid organ of St David’s Hall giving it everything.  The principal percussionist was clearly loving every minute.

But the sunrise is only one section of nine and it’s a pity that it’s often the only part we get to hear. The other sections are rather more recognisably late-romantic, but they cover a huge range as Strauss expresses in music various aspects of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche that inspired this piece.

The whole performance was brilliantly energised. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen got so carried away at one point that the baton slipped from his hand and flew into the First Violins. That’s definitely the first time I’ve seen that happen!
The concert ended to tumultuous applause: St David’s Hall wasn’t full, but the audience was very appreciative of an excellent performance. 

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6 Responses to “Beethoven and Strauss at St David’s Hall ”

  1. Also sprach Z:

    A memorable performance by the Portsmouth Sinfonia:

    .. and an arrangement of the same, for solo violin

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Ah, the ever astonishing Portsmouth Sinfonia. I’d really have liked to have heard them in Strauss’s Four Last Songs with Florence Foster Jenkins, if only she’d lived long enough to make it possible.

      And I’d never have believed the start of Also Sprach Zarathustra could be played by a single person. Now I know differently.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    Good. It sounds an excellent concert, but not unexpected given such an outstanding orchestra and conductor.

    The last time I heard Also Sprach Zarathustra from the Philharmonia they were conducted by an elderly conductor who took the piece VERY slowly. The orchestral playing was excellent, as usual, but the pace of the piece was so slow that it sometimes felt as though time had stopped. I applauded the orchestral players afterwards when the conductor was offstage, but did not applaud when the conductor was present. I felt sorry for the players that they did not have a real opportunity to shine that night.

    I once heard Zarathustra in the Albert Hall when all the organ stops suddenly shot out, producing a loud flatulent noise for a second or two before the organist got the machine functioning properly again.

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