Steph Power reviews a concert featuring works from Rachmaninoff and Nielsen by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at St David’s Hall.
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 12 April 2013
Sergei Rachmaninoff – Piano concerto No. 3
Carl Nielsen – Symphony No. 5
Conductor: Thomas Søndergård
Piano: Llŷr Williams
The piano concertos of Sergei Rachmaninoff – or, at least, the first three – have come to embody a flamboyant and distinctly Russian form of late-Romanticism. Each work pitches a lone, mesmerically brilliant virtuoso against the titanic forces of a full orchestra in a battle of epic emotional sweep and physical endurance, the two sides finally emerging united in an affirmation of life through adversity. For regular audiences, the battle takes on a quasi-ritual significance in which the pianist is ultimately embraced anew as culture hero, following a super-human display of technical and artistic prowess against the odds. In the case of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909) – which saw a surge in popularity over the hitherto better-liked Concerto No. 2 – the ritual took on mythic proportions in an ironic twist following the 1996 movie Shine, which enacted a concert pianist’s battle against internal demons and mental illness through the piece itself; the questionable suggestion (expressing a surprisingly pervasive belief) being that the practice of ‘art’ is tantamount to courting madness. Thankfully, tonight’s more subtle performance by soloist Llŷr Williams and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (conducted by Thomas Søndergård) bore no trace of the dubious cultural assumptions and downright sentimentality from which such nonsense arises.
In pairing the Rachmaninoff with Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 (1921-2), BBC NOW offered instead a robust and thought-provoking – not to mention exhilarating and emotionally-charged – insight into two wholly contrasting composers who each chose a highly individual path at a time of social and artistic upheaval. Whilst Rachmaninoff’s music has largely been snubbed by scholars for its supposed stylistic anachronism (and associations with that very sentimentality), Nielsen’s music has more or less been ignored by those outside his native Scandinavia (bar important work by Robert Simpson and Daniel Grimley amongst others) as a perceived idiosyncratic sideline to a main narrative of music-historical ‘progress’; a narrative which is at last now being challenged as more scholars question the notion of musical ‘progress’ and, in particular, what constituted modernism in the early twentieth century. It turns out that Nielsen is one of the greatest and most original symphonists, not just of the last century but – I would argue – of any century; a bold claim perhaps, but one to which I hold true in the light of Søndergård’s enthralling performance of this most challenging and elusive work.
Both pieces on the programme were performed with commitment, passion and, at times, hair-raising energy, and it was a joy to experience Søndergård’s emerging rapport with the orchestra. Interestingly, it was the tenderness of the Rachmaninoff rather than its grandiosity that stood out, as Williams played to his strengths as a pianist of intimate, poetic warmth rather than outright physical power. The outer movements, in particular, of this Concerto, can often seem to rush from climax to climax on waves of pianistic glitter but here, melodic lyricism led the way – not just in the solo part but throughout the orchestra, with some beautifully dovetailed phrasing from the woodwind, for example. Indeed, the interplay between Williams and the orchestra was superb and, facilitated by Søndergård’s responsive baton, was undoubtedly helped in places by the pianist’s renowned sensitivity as an accompanist. He and Søndergård gave us a reading that was full of playful touches as well as a cinematic colouring which did not neglect the many darker hues of this mercurial piece. Needless to say – as Williams is now long established as a culture hero in his own right for Welsh audiences – the packed auditorium was ecstatic and listened to his generous encore of Chopin’s Waltz in A minor with rapt attention.
If the Rachmaninoff was excellent, the Nielsen was outstanding. In his Symphony No. 5, Nielsen takes the idea of battle to an altogether more rigorous, grimly sardonic level and, although he was clear in stating that the piece has no direct programme, he nevertheless described it as ‘the division between dark and light, the battle between evil and good’ and further spoke of nationhood as a ‘spiritual syphilis’, showing how deep-seated his natural pessimism had become in the aftermath of the Great War. The symphony is incredibly difficult to play, with lengthy passages of repeated rhythms for the strings and exposed, astringent writing for the woodwind (hats off to Tim Lines for his whirlwind first clarinet) – as well, of course, as the famously oppressive snare drum which dominates the first movement; perfectly judged on this occasion by the unflappable Chris Stock. But the triumph was Søndergård’s overall, as he turned total engagement from the orchestra into music-making of the highest calibre, in a performance which yielded claustrophobic compression and breathtaking expansiveness in equal, requisite measure.
The power of this music is underlined by a reviewer’s description of a performance of the 5th Symphony in Stockholm, 1924, which spoke of ‘genuine panic’ in parts of the audience; around a quarter of whom: ‘dashed towards the exits with horror and rage painted across their faces … [and so Nielsen’s] description of modern life with all its confusion, brutality and struggle, all the uncontrolled cries of pain and ignorance – and behind it all, the hard rhythm of the side drum as the only discipline – gained, as the audience fled, a touch of almost diabolical humour.’
That ‘diabolical humour’ – as well as sheer rage and passages of eerie stasis, notably at the end of the first movement – drove Søndergård’s performance in a way which the composer would surely have appreciated from his fellow Dane. Nielsen was a troubled figure and had an ambivalent relationship to European musical developments (in a 1925 essay ‘Words, Music and Programme Music’, for example, he tartly referred to Germany as a ‘breeding ground for metaphysicians’). But his music had more in common with the modernism gaining ground in Central Europe than might at first appear, setting aside the obvious difference that Nielsen never eschewed tonal harmony; for he too was looking forwards and backwards at the same time in seeking ways to tackle problems of continuity and rupture in musical form and language. In the Symphony No. 5, that searching found apotheosis in a unique exploration of contrast and opposition which, for all the confusion at early performances, was quickly appreciated by Scandinavian audiences as well as critics. Hopefully, tonight’s justified acclaim from BBC NOW’s Cardiff audience is a sign that more listeners in the UK are appreciating the full scope of Nielsen’s achievement.
A recording of this concert is available on BBC iPlayer until Sunday 21st April: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01rw0jr/Sunday_Concert_BBC_NOW_Rachmaninov_Nielsen/
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Nigel Jarrett attended St David’s Hall for a night of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich with BBCNOW, led by Thomas Søndergård.
Steph Power is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.