Review: BBC National Orchestra of Wales, St David’s Hall, Cardiff.
Strolling through the city centre on our way to this opening concert of the much-anticipated Cardiff Classical Series, it certainly felt like the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness was being ushered in.
However, the work at the heart of the concert presented a startling vision of another season.
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring still has the power to disturb, and perhaps shock, even though it was first performed on May 29, 1913, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, Paris.
Famously, that performance caused a riot, with the upper and middle class members of the audience disgusted by what they were hearing, and students in the cheap seats determined to applaud the new and daring work.
The audience at St David’s Hall was in no mood to riot. The more affluent members sat rather demurely while the students–and there was an encouragingly large number of them–behaved in an exemplary manner as the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, under its principal conductor Ryan Bancroft, gave a powerfully visceral performance of the piece.
The work that took up the first half of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3, was played with mesmerising aplomb by the South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son. Her memorable performance met with a riot of appreciation by all sections of the audience.
The concerto is widely regarded as being one of the most technically challenging in the standard classical piano repertoire. Yeol Eum Son tackled it head on with a blend of tenacity and panache.
The concerto presents many opportunities for virtuosic display. While Yeol Eum Son grabbed these opportunities with alacrity, this was no ostentatious display of pianist prowess.
Rather, her playing was measured and contemplative, not least in the first movement cadenza where she controlled and shaped the shifting moods and nuances to mesmerising effect.
Ryan Bancroft was similarly persuasive as he drew from his orchestra playing that was really quite entrancing. Instead of the relentless lushness that mar some interpretations of this music, Bancroft revealed its intense and intimate poetry.
The pacing of second movement, marked Intermezzo: Adagio-Un Poco piu mosso–was beautifully judged by both soloist and orchestra, it melancholic and rhapsodic theme pulling at the heartstrings.
There was power and precision from both soloist and orchestra in the final movement. It was no surprise that the performance was met by shouts of acclamation from the audience.
Puccini described The Rite of Spring as “the work of a madman.” Perhaps.
Its brutal primitivism presents a horrifying vision of the pitilessness of nature, and something darker still as “the chosen virgin” dances herself to death.
The Rite is a ballet and orchestral score. Indeed, it was Najinsky’s choreography for that disastrous first performance that caused much of the anger.
Ryan Bancroft’s conducting style might be described as balletic. He was certainly animated as he led his orchestra in a mightily impressive performance of the work.
The Rite falls into two sections: Part One: The Adoration of The Earth, and Part Two: The Sacrifice.
The savage stamping chords from the strings of this fine orchestra, followed by the forbidding growl from two bass tubas and a fierce outburst from timpani, set the scene for a menacing and suitably frenzied interpretation of Part One
The tension mounted in Part Two, which is largely taken up by The Sacrificial Dance. Bancroft was in complete control as the music reached the peak of its rhythmic fury in a series of orgiastic climaxes before The Rite is accomplished. It was a mightily impressive performance.
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