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Dvořák, Richard Strauss: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Roberto Minczuk (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 20.11.2009 (GPu)

, Symphony No.9 (From the New World)

Richard Strauss, Burleske

Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier - Suite

Without being in any way exceptional, this was a pleasant enough evening, characterised by the high competence (and more!) of all concerned. And in concentrating on the work of Dvořák and Richard Strauss it carried the promise (fulfilled!) of an evening rich in melody. But, by the end of the evening, I, at least, had a slightly unsatisfied feeling.

We began with a performance of Dvořák’s New World in which the transition from the adagio introduction to the main body of the opening Allegro molto was well handled and was succeeded by some fiercely accented rhythms. In this first movement the strings – and especially the violins – of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales sang out with particular lyrical vehemence, and Roberto Minczuk’s conducting made vivid use of dynamic contrasts. I wondered whether Dvořák’s melodies were perhaps treated just a little self-indulgently, lingered over and relished just a little too obviously? That certainly wasn’t the case in the Largo, in which the famous cor anglais melody was beautifully played and Minczuk’s conducting, with lots of subtle gradations and variations of tempo made the whole movement a thing of real delicacy and strength, not least in the hushed solemnity of its close. The ensuing Scherzo was vividly busy but less imbued with character or distinctive personality, as if its complex structure was a little inhibiting. The closing Allegro con fuoco certainly blazed out, full of attack and of tight rhythmic control and there was much to enjoy in the way that Minczuk made sense of this thoroughly recapitulatory music without ever allowing vitality to drain away.

After the interval Marc-André Hamelin joined the orchestra for a performance of Strauss’s Burleske. Written when the composer was in his mid-twenties, Strauss never seems to have had full confidence in the work; an initial private performance of the piece produced a judgement from Hans von Bülow that it was “cross-grained” and essentially unplayable. Only some five years later did the encouragement of Eugen d’Albert bring about the first public performance (in Eisenach, alongside the premiere of Tod und Verklãrung). Even then the work did not really establish itself widely in the favour of either public or pianists (indeed it was a further four years before Strauss sanctioned its publication). It is full of energy and of wit, the piano writing has abundant sparkle and the orchestral colours and textures show signs, at least, of what Strauss was to do later. On this occasion the remarkable Marc-André Hamelin made the ‘unplayable’ seem easy – as one has come to expect of him, and as we are in danger of taking for granted. But even he couldn’t really convince one that there is much at the core of the piece, that it isn’t essentially rather superficial, fuller of effects than causes. Even the sheer fun of the piece eventually seems rather heartless. Hamelin’s work at the keyboard was dazzling and Minczuk and the Orchestra played with abundant vitality and colour, without ever quite convincing one that the work was truly worth their efforts.

Nor does the 1945 suite from Der Rosenkavalier really show Strauss at his greatest. Strauss himself may not have had a hand in this particular compilation of music from the opera of 1909/10; it has been suggested that Artur Rodzinski may have been responsible. It presents a lop-sided view of the opera and of Strauss. Yes, there are plenty of fine melodies to be heard, and they were relished by Minczuk and the orchestra. But the suite so reduces the essentially theatrical nature of the music, so robs of it of its force as part of a larger structure, that anyone who knows the opera is all too likely to be more conscious of what has gone than of what is left. The orchestration adds lusciousness to lusciousness, and is finally a somewhat factitious confection. The horns of the orchestra were on particularly good form and the orchestra as a whole played with considerable panache; Roberto Minczuk’s conducting drew forth some vivid orchestral colours and the performance was not short on energy. Yet one’s final sense was of frustration – a feeling that after the Dvořák which opened the programme, there was too little of real musical substance, despite the accomplishment of all of those involved in its performance.

Glyn Pursglove


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