Archive for St David’s Hall

Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra: Mahler Symphony No. 3

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Music with tags , , , , on June 18, 2018 by telescoper

Well, I’m back in Maynooth after a weekend in Cardiff, on the Sunday of which I went to St David’s Hall to see the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra playing Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony. Actually this concert was originally scheduled to take place on the evening of Friday 15th June, which is why I booked a ticket to return from Bonn in time to see it instead of waiting for the formal close of the meeting. As it turns out, my flight was so late I would have missed it but fortunately the Rolling Stones intervened. Because Jagger et al were performing at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on Friday (with all the consequent congestion and traffic disruption that implies) it was decided to shift the concert to Sunday 18th, but I couldn’t be bothered to change my flight.

Anyway, it proved an excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Gustav Mahler spoke of his Third Symphony as being “of such magnitude that it mirrors the whole world” and you can see what he was getting at by just looking at the scale of the forces arrayed on stage when it’s about to be performed live. For yesterday’s concert at St David’s Hall, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra was augmented by the WNO Community Chorus and the Choristers of St David’s Metropolitan Cathedral Choir, as well as soloist mezzo soprano Kate Woolveridge.

The orchestra needed to perform this extravagant work is much larger than for a normal symphony, and it involves some unusual instrumentation: e.g. two harps, a contrabassoon, heaps of percussion (including tuned bells and double tympanists), etc. The string section was boosted by double-basses galore, and there’s also a part (for what I think was a flugelhorn) to be played offstage. The work is also extremely long, being spread over six movements of which the first is the longest (over 30 minutes). Yesterday the performance stretched to about 1 hour and 40 minutes overall, with no interval. I don’t know of any symphonic works longer than this, actually.

It’s worth pointing out that the orchestra and choir(s) tackling this immense work were non-professional. It’s also worth pointing out that the principal French Horn – who is given a lot to do in this piece – was none other than Dr Bernard Richardson, recently retired from the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.

I have to admit I have always had lot of trouble getting to grips with the first movement, in which various themes are repeatedly played off against each other, punctuated by a series of extravagant crescendo passages in which the orchestra threatened to blow the roof off. It is, at times, thrilling but also manic and, to me, rather indecipherable. The second movement, in the form of a minuet, is elegant enough, and was beautifully played (especially by the strings), but in comparison with the wayward exuberance of the first movement it sounds rather conventional.

The third movement, however, is totally gorgeous, especially in the passages featuring the offstage flugelhorn (?) and the string section of the orchestra on stage. From this point this piece started to bring me under its spell. The solo vocalist and choir(s) were marvellous in the fourth and fifth movements, the former a setting of a poem by Nietzsche and the latter a mixture of traditional verse and Mahler’s own words, but it was in the majestic sixth and final movement that the orchestra really reached its peak. This is one of the most romantic movements to be found in all of Mahler, passionate, lyrical and supremely uplifting. At times before the sixth movement the orchestra (especially the brass) had struggled a bit with the demands of the score, but the finale was as good a performance as you’ll hear anywhere.

Mahler’s 3rd Symphony is an epic journey through a landscape filled with dramatic contrasts. At times you wonder where you are going, and sometimes feel in danger of getting completely lost, but by the time you arrive triumphantly at the final destination all those doubts had melted away. Congratulations to the Cardiff Philharmonic on a very fine performance, warmly received by the audience.

After the concert there was a collection on behalf of the Forget-Me-Not Chorus, which supports people with dementia and their families through weekly singing sessions. I think this is a great initiative and made a donation on the way out – if you feel like doing likewise you can do so here.

Well, that’s my concert-going at St David’s Hall over for another season. Indeed, it’s probably the last concert I’ll be attending there for the foreseeable future, as I’ll be relocating fully to Ireland this summer. I’ll have many fine memories of listening to music there.

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BBC NOW: Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich at St David’s Hall

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , on June 8, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I took my seat in St David’s Hall for a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of Principal Conductor Thomas Søndergård. It was an all-Russian menu, and very enjoyable it was.

The first course was the Violin Concerto by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It’s a familiar work but was ravishingly played by Latvian soloist Baiba Skride, who seem to revel in the virtuosic elements of this work, as well as bringing out the lyricism in the more romantic passages. The Orchestra were on top form too. I particularly enjoyed the way they dealt with the introduction of the famous `big tune’ in the first movement: brisker and with less of the tendency to wallow in it than you find in many performances.

The, after the wine break, we had the main dish for the evening, the Symphony No. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich. This is a very famous work and is perhaps the most accessible of all the Shostakovich symphonies. It was an immediate success with Soviet critics and public alike when it was first performed in 1937, and though it marked Shostakovich’s return to favour with the authorities after his denunciation by Stalin, this work has the composer’s very characteristic sense of things not being quite as they seem on the surface. Indeed, in this and many other of his compositions, seems to manage to say one thing at the same time as saying the exact opposite of that thing; nowadays this might be called `constructive ambiguity’. This is especially in the finale, in which the sense of triumph is almost a parody of itself. Overall the Fifth Symphony is a sombre work, the dark undertone establish right at the start with an imposing theme on the cellos and double basses, but it has passages of great beauty too, especially in the slow third movement. Like all great symphonies – and this is one of the greatest – it takes you on a journey full of of excitement and interest. The 45 minutes or so of this performance seemed to fly by, and its ending was greeted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation from many in the audience.

It’s interesting to consider that only 60 years had elapsed between the composition of these two pieces, but what different worlds they represent!

Anyway, the full strength National Orchestra of Wales, produced a gripping performance of this tremendous work with every section playing at the top of its form and the finale really brought the house down. But you don’t have to take my word for it – the whole concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 next Tuesday, 12th June.

This concert is the last of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales season at St David’s Hall and indeed the last of at St David’s with Thomas Søndergård as Principal Conductor (though he will be conducting the Orchestra a couple of times at the Proms this summer). I wish him all the very best for his future musical adventures. It’s also the last concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales I’ll be attending before departing for Ireland. I don’t think I’ll get much chance to hear them after I’ve relocated, so let me take this opportunity to thank every single member of the Orchestra for the many performances I’ve enjoyed over the years, and to wish them well for the future.

Prokofiev, Grieg and Beethoven at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2018 by telescoper

This afternoon found me once again at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, waiting for a concert to start.

This time it was the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Tomáš Hanus. And very enjoyable it was.

The first number was a bit of a taster for the forthcoming WNO season, which includes Prokofiev’s War and Peace and Rossini’s Lá Cenerentola. The latter being the story of Cinderella, it made sense to include Prokofiev’s Cinderella Suite from the ballet he wrote in the 1940s.

After that we had the evergreen Grieg’s Piano Concerto, by Grieg, played by the excellent Peter Donohoe, exactly how I like it: with all the right notes in the right order, and the Orchestra not too heavy on the banjoes.

Following the wine break we had Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a work which has to be one of his most uplifting pieces. Beethoven was very good at ‘uplifting’ so that means it is very special indeed.

A lovely concert, warmly received by the audience and a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Angela Hewitt at St David’s Hall – The Goldberg Variations

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2018 by telescoper

Angela Hewitt (picture credit: St David’s Hall website )

This afternoon I had the great pleasure of attending a solo piano concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff featuring star pianist Angela Hewitt (pictured above). The programme consisted of one work – but what a work! – the monumental Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

I’ve been looking forward to this concert for weeks, not only because it was a rare opportunity to hear Angela Hewitt play, but also because although it’s a very special piece to me I’ve never heard the entire work played live before today.

The fact that I love this work so much is probably connected with my love of Jazz. Although ostensibly totally different idioms, the basic idea of ‘theme and variation’ unites these forms. Not much is known about Bach’s approach to the composition of this particular work but it wouldn’t surprise me if he improvised at least some of the variations. Above all, though, it’s when those walking bass lines for the left hand appear (e.g. near the end of the Aria) that Bach really swings; I always imagine Percy Heath or Ray Brown accompanying those passages on the double bass.

The sense of anticipation for this concert probably explains why I arrived earlier than usual:

I have eight different versions of the Goldberg Variations on CD, including one by Angela Hewitt and the two extraordinary (and extraordinarily different) recordings by fellow Canadian Glenn Gould. If I had to pick my favourite, however,  it would probably be one by Andras Schiff, but I find much to enjoy in all of them. I think the great thing about Bach’s music is that it’s so beautifully constructed that it can be played in a huge variety of ways and still be exquisite.

I’ve heard some people describe Angela Hewitt’s way of playing Bach as ‘affected and punctilious’ and others ‘elegant and crisply articulated’. They’re probably all describing the same thing, but some people like it and some don’t, it’s just a matter of taste.

Recordings are not the same as a live experience, and today underlined to me just how much more I enjoy live concerts. The concert lasted about 80 minutes (without an interval) – there are 30 variations altogether – and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience at St David’s with such rapt attention. For me the time went so quickly that I was quite startled when I heard the start of penultimate section (‘Quodlibet’) signalling that we were near the end. After the final note of the closing recapitulation of the opening Aria had subsided, the soloist kept her face down over the keyboard as if daring anyone to break the spell. Eventually she raised her head, smiled, and the applause began, followed by a standing ovation. The St David’s audience is usually rather reticent so that tells you how good this was. What better way can there be to spend a Sunday afternoon?

P.S. Angela Hewitt walked on and off stage with the aid of a metal crutch, suggesting some form of leg injury. On the unlikely event that she reads this, let me wish her a speedy recovery from whatever it is!

Debussy, Mozart and Messiaen at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on March 25, 2018 by telescoper

The view from Tier 2 before the concert

After work (and a pint or two) on Friday evening I headed to St David’s Hall for a concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 so you can listen to it on the iPlayer for a month.

Two of the four pieces on the programme were by Claude Debussy (abovel, to mark the centenary of his death which was 100 years ago today (on 25th March 1918).

The concert opened with Debussy’s Nocturnes and ended with La Mer , both works consisting of three movements for a large orchestra and showing the vivid chromaticism and lush orchestration that typifies so many of his compositions. The last movement of Nocturnes includes some wordless singing, which was performed beautifully by female singers from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

The second piece was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat Major K. 595, with soloist Steven Osborne. This, Mozart’s last piano concerto, is a nice piece, well played by both pianist and (pared-down) orchestra but I felt it was a rather incongruous choice for this programme. It was probably chosen because it is in some sense a valedictory piece, but all it did for me in this concert was emphasize how much the harmonic vocabulary of music expanded between Mozart and Debussy, and left me feeling that the Mozart piece was rather trite in comparison.

After the wine break we heard a piece that was completely new to me, Les Offrandes Oubliées by Olivier Messiaen, a wonderfully expressive piece with wildly contrasting moods, clearly influenced by Debussy but with a distinctive voice all its own. Messiaen is one composer I definitely wish I knew more about.

After the superb La Mer which ended the published programme, something very unusual happened for a classical concert in the UK: there was an encore by the orchestra in the form of a dance by Debussy orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

All in all, a very enjoyable evening and a fitting tribute to Claude Debussy, a composer who was both modernist and impressionist and whose influence on the development of music is incalculable.

The Philharmonia Orchestra: Beethoven & Mahler

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on February 19, 2018 by telescoper

I spent yesterday afternoon at a very enjoyable concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff for a programme of music by Beethoven and Mahler given by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Principal Guest Conductor Jakub Hrůša. The picture above was taken about 10 minutes before the concert started, from my seat in Tier 1. Quite a few people arrived between then and the beginning of the performance, but there wasn’t a very big audience. St David’s Hall may have been less than half full but those who did come were treated to some fantastic playing.

The first half of the concert consisted of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (in C) with soloist Piotr Anderszewski. This work was actually composed after his Piano Concerto No. 2 but was published first. It consists of three movements, an expansive slow movement (marked Largo) sandwiched between two sprightly up-tempo movements, marked Allegro con brio and Rondo-Allegro Scherzando, respectively. I think the first part of the last movement, full of energy and wit, is the best part of this work and Anderszewski play it with genuine sparkle. His performance was very well received, and he rounded it off with a charming encore in the form of a piece for solo piano by Bartok.

After the wine break we returned to find the piano gone, and the orchestra greatly expanded for a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 , the fourth movement of which (the `Adagietto’) is probably Mahler’s best-known music (made famous by its use in Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice). This lovely movement is sometimes performed on its own – a practice Mahler himself encouraged – but I think it’s particularly powerful when heard in its proper context, embedded in a large orchestral work that lasts well over an hour.

Although nominally five movements, this work is really in three sections: the first section consists of the first two movements (the first starting with Trauermarsch (a funeral march), and the second a stormy and at times savage movement, punctuated with brief interludes of peace). The last section consists of the beautiful Adagietto 4th movement (played entirely on the strings) followed by an energetic and ultimately triumphant finale. In between there’s an extended Scherzo, which is (unusually for Mahler) rather light and cheerful. Roughly speaking this symphony follows a trajectory from darkness into light and, although it certainly doesn’t go in a straight line, and does start with a death march, this is undoubtedly one of Mahler’s cheerier works!

The Philharmonia Orchestra gave a very accomplished and passionate reading of this piece, with especially fine playing from the brass section (who have lot to do). The exuberant ending brought many members of the audience to their feet and rightly so, as it was a very fine performance – the best I’ve heard live of this work.

Messiah

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Music, Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 10, 2017 by telescoper

A performance of Handel‘s Messiah  at St David’s Hall  is always a pretty sure sign that the Christmas season is upon us, although the work itself was actually first performed at Easter and it’s by no means clear why it ended up almost universally regarded as a Christmas work . Messiah actually spans the entire biblical story of the Messiah, from Old Testament prophecy to the Nativity (Part 1) , the Passion of Christ (Part II, culminating in the Hallelujah Chorus, and the Resurrection of the Dead (Part III). The Nativity only features (briefly) in Part I, which is why it’s a little curious that Messiah is so strongly associated with Christmas.

Whatever the reason I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me – some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, over 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young. I went to a performance of Messiah (in the same venue) about this time last year but I relished the chance to hear it again last night.

As it turned out, the pairing of Cardiff Polyphonic Choir with baroque orchestra Réjouissance produced a very different performance from last year. The choir, numbering about sixty members, was in fine voice and the much smaller orchestra meant that the chorus really dominated the show.

Generally speaking I’m not a fan of period instrument performances. I can see the virtue of having a lighter instrumental touch in this case, and don’t have a problem with using forces of similar scale to those Handel would have used (e.g. two oboes, two cellos, one double bass, etc). I do not however understand why musicians insist on using outdated instruments. This is particularly true for the trumpets. Nobody will ever convince me that a baroque trumpet isn’t an inferior version of the modern instrument. All credit to the players for doing the best they could, but I really don’t see the point.

Anyway, that rant aside, I very much enjoyed the performance, especially the lovely singing by all four soloists and the choir, who were outstanding.
Now, I wonder where I’ll hear Messiah  next year?