Lothar Koenigs conducted the Welsh National Opera Orchestra in a concert prelude to their “Fallen Women” season of opera, culminating in a brilliantly vivid account of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

Lothar Koenigs
Lothar Koenigs

The most modern work came first. Alban Berg’s 1926 Lyric Suite for string orchestra was a product of his extra-marital affections for Hanna Fuchs. The work is rich in coded references to their affair, chiefly in the musical interweaving of their initials into the deep, polyphonic textures. Berg’s rich soundscape was conveyed with clarity and intimate interaction between sections. The opposite seating of first and second violins was very helpful in this regard. The passages requiring close ensemble came off very well too, especially so in the descending scale of pianissimo feathery bow strokes at the end of the first movement. By contrast, the more aquarial textures of the Allegro misterioso were suitably well blended at soft dynamics, and the ebb and sweep of the Adagio flowed along with greater purpose. The emotional peak of the work, a solo for principal second violin, was very well played, and the closing scale in contrary motion was admirably well controlled. For the “risky” piece on the programme, the Berg was warmly received, and made for an unexpectedly excellent addition to the programme.

Emma Bell was a fine choice of soloist for Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. From the outset she projected with a voice which easily filled the large space of St David’s Hall, and even in the heavier orchestral passages she was able to hold her own with a full, rounded tone. The most beautiful results, though, were produced when she sang more softly in close collaboration with the orchestra. A particular highlight came in the second movement, when her delicate but warm voice hung softly above woodwind arpeggios, while she stood with hands raised and clasped together. In the next movement a wonderful effect was created by soloist, cellos and basses being placed in rough alignment, producing an unusual and very pleasing colour. Though Emma Bell’s ease in maintaining a large, full sound was beneficial in places, there were occasional moments in which she might have held back slightly. She certainly didn’t lack the control to do so, and it was the quieter material which left the greatest impression.

The orchestral accompaniment did well to match Ms Bell for warmth of tone and fine control. The more prominent interactions with the solo line, such as that of a solo viola in the third movement, showed a pleasing willingness to listen in the players, and confidence in Lothar Koenigs to refrain from micromanagement. The orchestral coda to the same movement was deeply affecting, and the soft sound of the final bars of the piece was memorably beautiful.

It occurred to me during Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique that Koenigs and the WNO Orchestra have a certain advantage in this music over a regular concert orchestra. The dramatic aspects of the work were very clearly portrayed, making this the most explicitly descriptive performance I have heard. The first violins were fundamental in this, the section of thirteen producing a vibrato-heavy and soloistic sound with a slight sparkle at the edges. This was highly beneficial in passages such as the first appearance of the idée fixe. At its first outing, the theme was beguiling and highly original in its phrasing, before a more matter-of-fact repeat, demonstrating a very purposeful dramatic direction from Koenigs. Berlioz scores this and other similarly melodic lines for first violins and flute, and I was struck by how seamlessly the two combined tonight.

Strong character was in evidence throughout in the orchestral playing, from subtle glissandi in the second movement waltz to an admirably bucolic country scene in the third. The cellos were perhaps a touch too refined and warmly coloured here, though, considering the dark turn in the mood of the symphony in the third movement. At its close, the cor anglais solo was heartfelt and quite moving in its unanswered loneliness, but it felt rather a sudden change.

The famous “March to the Scaffold” featured further touches of original phrasing, alongside some bold outbursts from brass and percussion. From the climactic drumrolls of the end of the movement to the very end of the symphony, the orchestra seemed to have more and more fun. The eerie imagery of the finale was brilliantly painted by the woodwind (especially E flat clarinet), and they did very well to keep up with Koenigs’ brisk pacing. The rapid tempo made for an infectious dance, bounding along whilst maintaining good clarity in details such as the horns’ grace notes. The final pages romped along at an amazing tempo which I feared may not be sustainable, but even as Koenigs accelerated into the last bars, quality was not compromised. The evening closed in a flourish of impressive timpani sticking and heroic trombone arpeggios, before Koenigs turned to acknowledge the collective “Wahey!” from the audience with a large, boyish grin. It is hard to imagine a more entertaining finale to Berlioz’s symphony.