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J.S. Bach, Bartók, Kurtag, Beethoven: Peter Donohue (piano), Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Lothar Koenigs (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 21. 1.2011 (GPu)

Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G major, BWV 1048

Bartók, Piano Concerto No 2 in G major

Kurtág, …quasi una fantasia…Op.27 No.1

Beethoven, Symphony No.7 in A major, Op.92

Since his arrival as Music Director of Welsh National Opera in August 2009 Lothar Koenigs has effected a tightening up of the orchestra’s work, especially in the concert hall, and has put together some enterprising (and even adventurous) concert programmes. Both virtues were in evidence on this particular occasion. The programmes which Koenigs devises and conducts rarely give the impression of being merely random (more or less) assemblages of works that he and the soloist fancied playing or had as their party pieces. There is almost always a keen sense of unified purpose to a Koenigs programme. On my way to Cardiff to this concert I naturally looked for the golden thread here – but I needn’t have made the effort, Koenigs’ own programme note was explicit enough: “This concert is themed around the art form of the Concerto Grosso. We will see how different composers have used it in vastly differing ways through the history of music … More than 200 years after Bach wrote his piece, Bartók composed his 2nd Piano Concerto, combining Lisztian romantic virtuosity with elements developed from Bach’s concerti grossi. György Kurtág follows Bartók’s tradition in ‘…quasi una fantasia…’ a piece which quotes a Beethoven piano sonata. The concert will climax with Beethoven’s magnificent 7th Symphony”.

Certainly there would be few better places to start an evening with the concerto grosso than with one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The concerto was played – on modern instruments – by three violins, three violas and three cellos, with continuo of harpsichord and double-bass. All those threes (of structure and pattern, as well as instrumental groupings) which Philip Pickett has suggested embody allegorical allusions to the muses, the music of the spheres, the trinity and much else were laid before us very clearly. Yet the performance didn’t quite catch fire at any point, even it was highly competent and started the evening very pleasingly.

The temperature rose considerably in the Bartók Second Piano Concerto, with Peter Donohue as an excellent soloist. (I have more than once felt that this is a piece which might reasonably have been designated a Concerto for Piano and Timpani, and Patrick King’s interpretation of the timpani part was so good, and made such a major contribution to the success of this performance that such a feeling was more pronounced than ever). The first movement, to which the strings make no contribution, had vivacity and vigour in abundance, played with all the energy (and precision) that the music requires. Contrapuntal structures were clearly delineated, but without any loss of excitement and the rhythms spoke eloquently of Bartok’s Hungarian roots (and perhaps of his familiarity with jazz too). Donohue’s playing of the movement’s stunning cadenza was appropriately breathtaking and throughout the work of the brass section (particularly) was of the highest order. The hushed opening of the second movement had poise and a profound sense of space and scale, and the ensuing conversation between pianist and timpanist felt, mid-placed as it is, like the very heart of the work, its generative centre. The playing of the woodwinds and the strings in this movement was very fine, and beautifully integrated into the design of the whole by the conducting of Koenigs. In the final allegro molto the echoings of material from the first movement were evident without seeming at all forced and there was a teasing but unmistakable logic to the way orchestra and soloist moved towards the work’s optimistic conclusion (which for all the logic always seems surprising in a good performance – as it did here). This, for me, was the musical highlight of the evening, a memorable performance.

After the interval Kurtág’s ‘…quasi una fantasia…’ was accommodated intriguingly in the spaces (and heights) of St. David’s Hall. The pointillist fragility of the opening was well realised (with Peter Donohue as pianist), simultaneously beautiful and vulnerable; the second movement was not quite so successful, its spatial effects more intriguing than fully satisfying and one or two slight imprecisions of entry; the third movement (marked recitativo) had remarkable power, plangent funeral music dominated by brass and percussion, with mournfully whispering strings and woodwinds; here, and in the final ‘aria adagio molto’, Kurtág’s writing is at its most distinctive and also at its most allusive; in the aria there are reminiscences of Bach as well as of Beethoven, and the score’s prefatory quotation from Hölderlin’s ‘Remembrance’ fully befits this brief movement’s shoring up of fragments against ruin, its meditative act of recall and restitution. Not perhaps a perfect performance of the piece but a very good one, and how delightful to find the piece placed so intelligently within a carefully designed concert programme, where it could both illuminate, and be illuminated, by its neighbours.

The closing performance of Beethoven’s Seventh had all the onrushing continuity, all the momentum, that Kurtág’s fragments and silences designedly lack. The spirit of affirmation, of joy, is everywhere in the work and, to a great extent, Koenigs and his orchestra communicated the work’s exhilaration. The performance had plenty of spring in its step, and moments of real incandescence. But there were also moments, as once or twice in the vivace of the opening movement that weren’t quite as lively or infectious as one might have hoped. The opening of the allegretto was played with a pleasing sense of authority, the work of the lower strings being especially impressive. In the later phases of this movement Koenigs found both elegance and monumentality. In the minuet Koenigs maintained an attractive and effective balance of orchestral sections, though I did wonder whether the trio wasn’t just a little too cosy and might have had more sense of the hymnal, bearing in mind that Abbé Maximilian Stadler claimed some of the trio’s phrases to be based on a pilgrim’s hymn from Lower Austria. The playing of the woodwinds here deserved particular praise. Any minor reservations one might have had at points in the first three movements were comprehensively swept away by a muscular, insistently aggressive, but precisely controlled performance of the final movement, very definitely allegro con brio.

Cardiff is very fortunate to have two professional orchestras capable of working to high standards and doing so consistently; two orchestras, too, that can sometimes rise above merely high professional standards and play with something like inspiration. Koenigs and the present orchestra of Welsh National Opera seem to be partners well-suited to one another.

Glyn Pursglove


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