A lengthy standing ovation followed Thierry Fischer’s final St David’s Hall concert with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, concluding his sixth season with Richard Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony after a refined performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 22 with pianist Angela Hewitt.

Thierry Fischer © Chris Stock
Thierry Fischer
© Chris Stock

Whatever prefaced the Strauss was bound to be viewed partly as filler material, and there are few obvious links between the programmed works. Despite the substantial difference in scale, both pieces were produced by composers at the height of their powers, and Strauss owed much to Mozart’s development of the wind section as an independent force in the orchestra. The nine wind players (compared to 60 for Strauss) opened the evening with an easy grandeur and warmth, and displayed some fine chamber-style playing in their close interactions with soloist and among each other. There was a charming discussion between horns and clarinets in the third movement, and the prolonged passage for winds alone in the second movement, suggestive almost of Strauss’ wind serenades, was elegantly shaped.

The outer movements of the concerto danced along with great spirit, and Angela Hewitt’s playing was effortlessly graceful throughout, showing a masterful technique. She gave a strong impression of thoroughly enjoying the performance, at times conducting herself with a spare hand, and generally bobbing along to the orchestral passages. Fischer eschewed any hints of darker aspects to the music and constructed a measured, crisp and convivial reading. The more sombre second movement, though tender and lyrical, never threatened to become overly indulgent. The strings were in turn warm, light and articulate and always sensitive to the solo, making for some very enjoyable exchanges. The third-movement cadenza, written by Hewitt herself on a London bus, was delightfully playful and capped a very pleasing first half.

When the orchestra returned to the (extended) stage, it had perhaps trebled in size. Strauss’ narrative of an eleven-hour ascent of an Alpine peak requires such obscurities as Wagner tubas, an offstage hunting party of twelve horns, thunder and wind machines in the percussion section, and the rare heckelphone. The composer gave the work 22 descriptively-named sections to aid the imagery and referred to ‘Moral purification... through worship of nature, eternal and magnificent’. Links to Nietzsche have also been drawn; another of Strauss’ tone poems, Thus Spake Zarathustra deals more extensively with ‘man versus nature’, but the Alpine Symphony describes man joyously experiencing natural beauty, never at odds with it.

There was no shortage of magnificence or beauty in the performance. Fischer remained in total control throughout to shape a coherent whole from the many scenes. These were all individually well crafted, but in the wonderful moment of silence at the end of the performance, I had the impression of something more than each of them combined: this was a compelling story. The early ‘Meadow’ and ‘Pasture’ scenes displayed excellent woodwind playing in imitation of bird calls and flutter-tongued sheep. The musical centre of the piece, ‘At the Summit’, was spectacular, announced by roaring bass trombones. Fischer was animated throughout, but here in particular he crouched, lounged and leapt around the rostrum, drawing heroic playing from the brass and timpani.

The horn section was spread behind the woodwind, giving them a wide and full sound. They were superb throughout, and Principal Tim Thorpe gave some wonderful solos, most of all in partnership with organ at the ‘Sunset’. The offstage horns too, in their brief appearance, were boisterous as a distant hunting party, although they could have afforded to be positioned marginally less distant backstage. The ‘Storm’ passage was very much music to be felt through the floor, driven by full-blooded percussion, but by contrast after subsiding, the calmness of the sunset was beautifully paced and phrased. The vast string section played with great unity, athletic and vigorous in the early stages of the hike and later rich and velvety. The evening belonged to the brass section, though, who closed a very memorable concert in a dark and meditative B flat minor.

*****