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Britten, Mozart, Brahms: Llŷr Williams (piano), Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Lothar Koenigs (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 30.10.2009 (GPu)

Britten, Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
Mozart, Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor, K.491
Brahms, Symphony No.2

Fittingly enough the orchestra of Welsh National Opera began their programme with operatic music - the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. And, indeed, there was handsomely theatrical quality to their performance of the pieces, especially in the evocative moodiness of the first and the (un)healthy ferocity of the storm music of the fourth. The third lacked that final perfected shimmer, the aural painting of a diaphanous moonglade, which the music takes on in the very best performances. The second, however, got a rhythmically adroit performance in which the contrasts were very nicely characterised. The whole set made a promising start to the evening.

The promise was very largely fulfilled in a fine performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24, with Llŷr Williams as a compelling and subtle soloist. In the opening of the allegro first movement, the orchestral playing had a dark chromatic intensity (though the work of the strings, as occasionally elsewhere, lacked absolute fullness of tone). Llŷr Williams’s entry was beautifully phrased, effecting a heart-stopping moment as a private sensibility emerged hesitatingly, as it were, from the ‘public’ music of the orchestra. We were now fully engaged with a drama that was personal and inner, rather than public and quasi-theatrical. There was a fine clarity to Williams’s playing, a lucid articulacy that yet was never in danger of sounding glib or facile. Throughout this first movement the serious conversation of soloist and orchestra was very well handled, and the conducting of Lothar Koenigs was both supportive and quietly assertive. Koenigs is clearly a conductor of fine analytical intelligence, but entirely capable of passion. He seems to have brought an increased precision to the playing of the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera. In the central largehtto, Williams had both steel and lyricism in his playing, and the work of the woodwinds was particularly impressive (as it was throughout the evening). In the closing Allegretto there was, to nitpick, just an occasional stiffness of movement to some of Williams’s runs, but overall this was a fascinating and movingly dark-toned reading of the movement which refused easy consolation.

Just before I sat down to write this review, the morning after the concert, I read in The Guardian an account of the soon-to-be-published diaries that Benjamin Britten kept for some ten years from the age of 14. In them he apparently described Brahms’ Second Symphony as “dull, ugly, gauch [sic]”. While I certainly wouldn’t want to go that far, I cannot say that the Symphony has ever been one of my favourite works. The efforts of Koenigs and the Orchestra of WNO didn’t, I fear, do very much to make me change my mind. This seemed to me an accomplished, but unexceptional performance. There was less sense of a pastoral vision than one might have hoped for and the architecture of the first movement wasn’t delineated as clearly as it might have been. The more intimate passages of the symphony fared best - as in the openings of the second (a movement which was played with an attractive sense of shape and unity) and third movements; it was in the grander passages that conviction was a little less absolute. Here - as in parts of the last movement - there was a slight sense of strain, and the rhetoric sometimes sounded a little hollow. Overall my sense was of a well-prepared performance of considerable competence (and a performance well worth hearing), but one that somehow had the air of being well-made rather than deeply felt.

It is worth stressing, however, how fortunate Cardiff is to be the home of two accomplished orchestras (the other being, of course, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) and the base for a number of fine conductors - Thierry Fischer, François Xavier-Roth, Jac van Steen and Lothar Koenigs. It makes for a very healthy musical landscape.

Glyn Pursglove

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