The Hallé Orchestra returns to St David’s Hall, Cardiff, after absence and inactivity due to Covid. Nigel Jarrett is there to hear a popular programme and a little-heard gem of Czech music, conducted by Jonathan Bloxham.
Nonchalance arising from supreme confidence might describe the readiness with which orchestras ask their principal players to step up as the soloist in a concerto. Let’s ignore the equally valid reason of economy (though the musician concerned probably gets a bit extra as well as a night off regular duties): why book a more famous peripatetic musician when you have someone in your ranks who can do the job? The Hallé Orchestra’s principal clarinet, Sergio Castelló López, did all that was expected of him and more in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, playing a modern instrument rather than an example of the more ancient ones resurrected by period-performance advocates – the basset clarinet in this case, for which Mozart wrote the piece. It can plumb the depths, but Castelló López played the version of the score for the brighter clarinet in A with a modern orchestra and with an exuberance that would probably have been lost on Anton Stadler, the clarinettist (himself a principal in the Vienna Court Orchestra) who famously inspired Mozart to write the work.
That exuberance may have had its source equally in Jonathan Bloxham, one of Britain’s busiest and airborne young conductors, in a programme of cheerful high spirits beginning with the little-heard Suita Rustica by the Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová. The evening had its reflective moments, not least in the clarinet concerto’s central movement, raised by posterity to the sublime, from which not even the way the framing effervescence infected it could detract. The conductor-soloist partnership ensured that the work’s core was not autumnal-elegiac (that, too, if you had a mind) but restful and anticipatory of the renewed vigour to come in the allegro. It was an example of energy subdued as much as a pensive interlude; for sure, Castelló López’s lines were seamless and his phrasing securely interlocked, vindicating, as every persuasive performance must, the work’s lack of cadenzas. The performance had the fulfilled expectation of music played by a band whose soloist on this occasion appeared as primus inter pares, one of their own.
Kaprálová’s is an interesting corner of Czech music history. Born in 1915, she lived for just 25 years, dying in Montpellier from an illness wrongly diagnosed as miliary TB. She studied in Paris with Charles Munch and her compatriot, the composer Martinu, and was becoming an important and prolific figure. Rafael Kubelik and others championed her. The Suita Rustica quotes from Moravian, Slovak, Silesian and Czech folk songs and echoes with the assertive and uncompromising example of Stravinsky. It’s the sort of music, often dense and dissonant, that’s grist to the Hallé’s mill. The opening summons heavy inputs of brass and percussion, presaging the dramatic tensions throughout the three-movement piece and its moments of relief. There is much going on within the orchestra, and Bloxham was assiduous in uncovering the bright detail. Echoes in the lento-vivo-lento second movement owe more to Smetana and Dvorak than to Stravinsky but the Russian is never far away, certainly not in the final movement, in which there are influences of Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps. The build-up to the sudden end was nicely judged by Bloxham.
The book-ending Czech flavour of the concert was concluded with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. Bloxham’s handling of its outgoing breeziness was exceptional, the orchestra’s playing everywhere attuned to its mood. Witness the al fresco countryside sounds in the first movement – the flute’s birdsong, for example – and the invigorating almost leisurely tempos followed. The second movement fell somewhere between the slow pace suggested by the score and the more mobile one customarily followed and often pushed to excess, but without losing the drama of dynamic shifts. Bloxham raised the third movement’s allegretto grazioso/molto vivace to a mood of gaiety infused with more healthy nostalgia than sadness, and it proceeded with a serene and almost elegant motion. From its opening trumpet fanfare, the final movement surged along, the Slavic dance’s pace accelerated, seemingly as a Bloxham interpretation of what the score demanded.
The printed programme showed a picture of the Hallé Orchestra on a concert platform and appearing to be socially distanced. It was good to have them back in Wales in pre-Covid order and with none of their glister diminished.
Nigel Jarrett is a former daily newspaperman and a double prize-winner: the Rhys Davies award and the inaugural Templar Shorts prize, both for short fiction. He is a frequent contributor to Wales Arts Review and a reviewer and columnist for Jazz Journal magazine. This year sees the publication of his latest work of long fiction, Notes From The Superhorse Stable (Saron Publishers) and his fourth story collection, Five Go To Switzerland (Cockatrice Books). In August he will be Author of the Month for the National Library of Wales’s digital libraries project.
Header image: Jonathan Bloxham. Image courtesy of Kaupo Kikkas.