The BBC National Orchestra of Wales has its home in the Wales Millennium Centre on Cardiff Bay. Part of the centre is Hoddinott Hall, an auditorium that doubles as a recording studio. Its clean, clear acoustics can work well for middle sized ensembles and chamber music, but with a full-sized late romantic symphony orchestra, including two tubas, things can get a bit overpowering, even in the back row. However, the afternoon concerts which serve to record music for later broadcast with a live audience are moderately popular, and there was a reasonable turnout for the three pieces in this programme, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

André de Ridder © Marco Borggreve
André de Ridder
© Marco Borggreve

Rued Langgaard was not the easiest of Danish composers to get along with. He was vitriolic in his comments on his contemporary musicians, and believed himself to be the holder of the flame of true late-romantic music, under the influence of Wagner and Richard Strauss. He received no recognition during his lifetime, and only after his death at the age of 59 did his work begin to receive attention. He wrote 16 symphonies, a great deal of other orchestral, chamber and choral music, and it was his Symphony no. 7, written in 1925-26 and extensively revised ten years later that we heard – in its earlier version – at the opening of the concert. In many ways the most innovative piece in the programme, it was described to me by another audience member as “Schumann with wrong notes”. This came close to the mark: melodically the four movements were rich in invention, but the heavy orchestration (often concealing some delicate writing for woodwind and strings) made it hard to get a grasp of the work’s direction and overall form. Oddly, the piece only lasted 17 minutes, giving the impression of short-windedness, as if the composer had lost confidence in his powers of invention.

Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto, played by the American violinist and BBC New Generation Artist Elena Urioste on a Gagliano fiddle made in 1706, was famously described at its first performance as “more corn than gold”. This cheap pun has stuck to it, unfortunately, and has prevented wider appreciation of one of the last great romantic violin concertos. Based on themes from Hollywood films earlier scored by Korngold, the three movements put the violin through hoops of virtuosic display and romantic melodic writing only just avoiding the schmaltzy. Urioste made more of the former than of the latter, and although she opened the first movement with appropriately fruity vibrato and some lush portamenti (slides up the fingerboard to approach the note from below) this soon dried up and the work lost some of its expressive power as a result. There was some fine playing in the first movement’s florid cadenza, modelled on that in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and in the zippy variations in the last movement, based on a theme from The Prince and the Pauper.

The last work in the programme was Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Little Mermaid, an orchestral suite that seemed to be begging to be turned into a ballet. Zemlinsky was a friend – and indeed brother-in-law – of Schoenberg, and wrote The Little Mermaid in 1902-3 when both he and Schoenberg were writing late romantic music, the revolutions of atonalism and serialism still to come. Hans Christian Anderson’s tragic tale fitted Zemlinsky’s mood at the time of writing the piece: he had been dumped by Alma Schindler (who later married Mahler) just before he began work on the score, and described the work to Schoenberg (as pointed out in an extremely perceptive programme note by Peter Reynolds) as “a preliminary study for my Symphony of Death”. Schoenberg greatly admired Zemlinsky, and believed his work would eventually gain the recognition it deserved. This performance, conducted by André de Ridder (who often works with Damon Albarn and other contemporary composers) was an eloquent argument for the work’s survival. The grand ballroom scene in the second movement was given the lavish waltz treatment that its Viennese composer intended, and the sharp, harsh strings in the last movement (led by Lesley Hatfield, always worthy of the exposure of a solo line) gave a poignant image of the tormented mermaid, returning in agony and broken-hearted to her life beneath the sea.

Only the bombastic sound of the massive brass section, far too big for this small auditorium, made the concert less than wholly pleasurable. Individual voices, from strings and woodwind, in particular the cor anglais and bass clarinet, spoke through the hubbub but risked being submerged like the mermaid herself.