Archive for Antonin Dvorak

The WNO Orchestra at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on January 15, 2018 by telescoper

It has been a very busy weekend but yesterday afternoon I took time out to visit St David’s Hall in Cardiff to hear the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera conducted by Tomáš Hanus in a programme of music by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Dvořák. I’ve noticed that many of the international concerts that are a regular part of Cardiff life have been moved from weekday evenings to weekend afternoons. No doubt that it is for commercial reasons. I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of matinee concerts, but as it happens I’m not going to be available for many of the weekday evening concerts for the foreseeable future so I thought I’d give this one a go. The programme was a middle-of-the-road bums-on-seats affair, but if it brings people into the concert hall that is a good thing and it was nice to see a big crowd, including a sizeable contingent of schoolchildren, there to enjoy the show.

First up we had a favourite piece of mine, Beethoven’s  Egmont overture, inspired by the story of Lamoral, Count of Egmont whose execution in 1568 sparked an uprising Spanish occupation that eventually led to the independence of the Netherlands. It’s a stirring, dramatic work, ideal for opening a concert programme. I thought the tempo was a bit slow at the start, which made increase in speed towards the end a little jarring, but otherwise it was well played the full orchestra, arranged with six double-basses right at the back of the stage facing the conductor with the brass either side. That was very effective at generating a rich dark sonority both in this piece and in the Dvořák later on.

The next item was a very familiar work indeed, the Violin Concerto in E minor by Felix Mendelssohn. This is perhaps best known for its lvoely second movement (in which they key changes to C major) but the other two movements are really innovative and virtuosic. In the wrong hands the slow movement can be horribly schmaltzy but Norwegian soloist Henning Kraggerud managed to bring out is beauty without wallowing in its romanticism. It was a very fine performance, warmly appreciated by the audience. Henning Kraggerud treated us to an encore in the form of an intruguing piece by a musician previously unknown to me, Olof Bull, a fellow Norwegian and a contemporary of Mendelssohn.

After the wine break the main event of was another familiar piece, the Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) by Antonín Dvořák, a piece full of nostalgia for his Czech homeland written while the composer was living in America. It’s a piece I’ve heard very many times but it still manages to stay fresh, and yesterday’s performance was full of colour of verve. Tomáš Hanus (himself Czech) chose this piece as a tribute to an old friend who passed away last year, and it was was played with great passion.

I’d heard all the pieces in this programme many times, both in concert and on record, but they all stand up to repeated listening, simply because they’re so very good. I do like to hear new works – and do wish the programming at St David’s Hall were a little more adventurous – but they do have to make ends meet and there’s in any case much to enjoy in the standard repertoire, especially when it’s played by a fine orchestra. Such pieces can fall flat when you get the feeling that the musicians themselves are a bit bored with them, but that emphatically wasn’t the case yesterday.

It will soon be time to Welsh National Opera’s new season, with a new production of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino alongside revivals of Tosca and Don Giovanni. It’s going to be tricky to see them all, but I’ll give it a go!

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The Hallé at St David’s

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2016 by telescoper

On Friday evening I kept up the concert-going, this time at St David’s Hall in Cardiff (which I haven’t been to for far too long). This was the first in the new season of concerto that will run until next summer.

On the bill on Friday was the Hallé Orchestra from Manchester (which is in the Midlands) under the direction of Sir Mark Elder.

The first half of the concert featured two works, the symphonic poem The Golden Spinning Wheel by Antonín Dvorak and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Benjamin Grosvenor.

The Dvorak piece is full of energy and  colour and nice tunes, but I found it rather long for what it has to say. Still, it was a good workout with which to get the Hallé warmed up.

I’m not a huge fan of Liszt. I often find his compositions showily virtuosic but rather shallow. Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto is actually much less like that than I expected. Consisting of a single movement lasting just over 20 minutes, it certainly has its pyrotechnical passages, but the piano also takes a back seat too. It’s a very enjoyable work, dazzlingly played at this concert by youthful star soloist Benjamin Grosvenor.

The second half was devoted to a very well-known piece, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (“The Pastoral”). It was, however, played in an unusual way that gave it a very fresh sound. Instead of having the basses and cellos in one block, Sir Mark Elder divided them into two groups either side of the stage, one with the first violins and one with the second violins. This simple device managed to create a much more solid  sound from the orchestra, as well as seeming to lower its centre of gravity, as it were. This heightened the impact of the excellent Hallé strings and gave the whole orchestra a rich sonority that perfectly suited the elemental power expressed by Beethoven’s composition.

A very enjoyable concert. Next one, in a couple of weeks, will be Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“The Resurrection”). I can’t wait for that!

Benjamin Appl and James Baillieu

Posted in History, Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I crossed the border from Brighton into the Labour stronghold of Hove (actually), All Saints Church to be precise. The purpose of my mission was to attend a recital of songs by German baritone Benjamin Appl accompanied at the piano by James Baillieu. This was my fourth Brighton Festival event in as many days, but the shows I have attended have been very different so I have no regrets about booking this particular sequence.

This recital was performed in the nave of All Saints Church in a sideways configuration so the musicians were on one side rather than at the end towards the altar. I have never been to this venue before but it’s quite a regular one for musical events. I suppose they use this arrangement for the more intimate kind of music-making, such as the singing of Lieder, so the performers can be as close as possible to the audience.

The programme consisted of songs either from or inspired by Eastern Europe. The concert began with three fairly well known songs by Franz Liszt based on poems by Heinrich Heine but then continued with six Heine settings by Anton Rubinstein (his Op. 32) which I’d never heard before. These songs are direct and uncluttered and I found them rather charming. The first half closed with The Biblical Songs by Antonín Dvořák, his Opus 99. Based on extracts from the Book of Psalms these very touching works were written when the composer heard his father was gravely ill.

After a short interval and a quick glass of overpriced Pinot Grigio, we continued with Six Songs Op. 90 by Robert Schumann, who also provided the finale with his intensely moving Requiem which was written later but subsequently added to the Opus 90 collection. In between these works by Schumann we heard a selection of songs from Terezin (German name Theresienstadt) the site of a concentration camp. These pieces are much lighter than the art songs surrounding them in the programme, but are invested with a deep sense of tragedy by the circumstances in which they were composed and also performed. The song Wiegala, for example, is a lullabye written by Ilse Weber, a Jewish lady who worked for some time as a nurse in Terezin. She sang it for countless children destined for the gas chambers, and when the time came for her and her son to be murdered she sang it for him too as they walked together to their deaths.

As an aside here I thought I would plug a CD of music from Terezin I bought a while ago that features Anne Sofie von Otter singing some of the heartbreaking songs written by the inhabitants of Terezin. It’s highly recommended, though I have to admit I find it hard to listen to it without bursting into tears.

What struck me most about this recital is that the greatest Lieder are often very simple and often very brief. Some of the greatest songs by, for example, Schubert areas simple that only a genius could have written them
I think it’s the focus that gives each its power and the variety within each collection means there’s always something to hold the listener even in a long programme. Yesterday I complained about the limitations of a programme featuring only one voice, yet this one also featured only one voice but was an unqualified success. The difference, I think, is that these songs were meant to be performed the way we heard them last night…

I really enjoyed this concert. Benjamin Appl has a wonderful baritone voice, and very few vocal mannerisms or affectations. He just lets the music do its stuff. It was an amazingly mature performance for such a young man.I shouldn’t forget the flawless accompaniment provided by James Baillieu either.

Apparently Benjamin Appl was the last private pupil of the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. That provides me with an excuse to include this version of the song Morgen! (Tomorrow!) Opus 27(4) by Richard Strauss, which was performed last night as an upbeat encore to an evening of intensely emotional music.

Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen
und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
wird uns, die Glücklichen sie wieder einen
inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde…
und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen,
stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen,
und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stumme Schweigen..

The first line translates as “And tomorrow the Sun will shine again…” Here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it: