St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 13 October 2016
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Mezzo-soprano: Sarah Connolly
Flute: Emily Beynon
Conductor: Thomas Søndergård
Debussy: Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un Faune
Ibert: Flute Concerto
Stravinsky: The Firebird (complete ballet music)
Concert halls are not theatres, which is one reason why lengthy ballet scores are often truncated. Performed in their entirety, as Stravinsky’s The Firebird was at this opening concert of the BBC NOW’s 2016-17 season, there are episodes of otherwise captivating brilliance that appear to lack lustre or structural heft. What they are really in need of is the visual element, in pictures and movement, to which they are by definition, and inextricably, bound. As the music appears to wander off track, or off the boil, dancers, costumes and scenery – and any other design features – embody an act of completion which the concert stage cannot accommodate. As Stephen Walsh, author of the magisterial two-volume biography of the composer, reminded us in a programme note, Stravinsky grew to dislike The Firebird’s overbearing popularity and its prominent pantomime effects, the latter all too obvious when the score is performed whole. By the same token, Stravinsky’s slimmer concert versions for smaller numbers and with less complex orchestrations eschew details and concentrate on the highlights. As with all programme music, the listener able to plot a course through the orchestra’s comings and goings in terms of the story being told is likely to get most from the experience.
There were 98 musicians on stage for this performance and seven off, including a trio of trumpeters at high altitude behind the band. To his credit, conductor Thomas Søndergård rarely stinted on the intervening matters between the main events, which demonstrated his control of large forces in discrete parts as well as in full cry. The Firebird itself, conjured by sharply etched trills and sumptuous colours, never left the scene, so vividly was it portrayed. Contrast is a huge element of the score, between the narrations and the big events they presage as much as ‘twixt the supernatural and the demotic. Much of the responsibility for the latter fell on the soloists, including principal bassoon Jaroslaw Augustyniak in the lullaby that signals the end of the story’s ogre, Kashchey, he of the lapidary skills in turning mortals to stone. Another was principal horn Tim Thorpe in announcing enlightenment following the dark shenanigans. In fact, after the most infernal of infernal dances, almost everyone deserved a mention, and at the end the conductor duly obliged. Among those specially recognised were principal piccolo Eva Stewart, principal oboe Luis Blanco Ferrer-Vidal, pianist Catherine Roe Williams, celesta player Chris Williams – and, for the third time of the evening, principal flute Matthew Featherstone. If there were misgivings in this performance they were to do with saturation of colour and momentary but fairly regular lapses of integration as the spotlight roved throughout the ranks. But these were matters brushed aside by an orchestra with an instinct for rallying at important landmarks and playing opulently to renewed strengths.
Featherstone rose to applause for the first time after Debussy’s Prélude à L’Après-midi d’un Faune, whose sleepy unfolding the orchestra caught perfectly, often a risk strategy for conductors knowing that at some point the music must get to its feet, however bleary-eyed. The control of that leisurely, almost reluctant, tempo was pretty much sustained throughout, with the flute the intermediary guide between conductor and orchestra and for that reason a controlling presence. The piece does develop a little but it’s a self-referential motion, essentially non-linear, and for that reason revolutionary. Played this way, the sense it still suggests of entering a new musical world, even one that’s now 120 years old, remains powerful. New music, the flute, French connections – each could have been this concert’s theme. The Firebird signalled a storytelling trope in music pointing to new directions, which the orchestra will be exploring at other times this season.
The flute, however, was irrepressible, making its presence felt in Ravel’s Shéhérazade and, most glitteringly, in Ibert’s Flute Concerto, with Emily Beynon the soloist. Beynon’s scampering, almost frenetic, playing in the outer movements was balanced by the central section’s long-breathed legato phrases, compellingly sustained in all registers. As an advocate for the piece in terms of how the instrument remains atop its charming and often sprightly orchestral companion, Beynon couldn’t have been trumped. It’s a light, lovely, al fresco, piece, deserving of wider currency, and her performance was fresh, commanding and full of character.
If Ravel in Shéhérazade transports us to a precious world of his own imbued with Eastern grace and shimmering impressionistic colour, its guide is surely none more welcoming than the great British mezzo Sarah Connolly. One tries to avoid describing what musicians are wearing on stage, especially women, but her assumption of the Orient in golden shoes, trousers (surely a tongue-in-cheek reference to the singer’s several operatic roles that require her to climb into them), and a jewel-bedecked blue velvet coat, was but a prelude to its greater musical evocation. This was singing from the very core of the music, those elevating triplets of the opening Asie evoking the lure and allure of the East, the whole piece a sensual invitation du voyage. She thrived on Søndergård’s feel for the music’s shifting currents, creating moments of both languor and high intensity and, in both La Flûte Enchantée (some sultry deep-mining for, again, solo flute) and the final L’Indifferent, a thrilling epicene glow. Perhaps only a mezzo of her authority and standing can summon listeners to Ravel’s somewhat disturbing exotic lands and banish their apprehension. Pure, pure joy.
Header image: Sarah Connolly, credit Peter Warren