Feature Review: Inauguration of BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

Written by: Rian Evans

BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales

Thierry Fischer

Jac van Steen

Baiba Skride (violin)

Llŷr Williams (piano)

Shenyang (bass-baritone)

Friday-Sunday, 23-25 January 2009

BBC Hoddinott Hall, the deceptively Tardis-like extension to the Wales Millennium Centre at Cardiff Bay, was conceived to meet a variety of needs. On the evidence of the opening weekend, architect Tim Green has certainly fulfilled the brief. The Hall provides a much-needed new studio base for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and with its state-of-the-art recording facilities – recording being a prime function of BBC orchestras – the set-up looks optimal. The BBC National Chorus of Wales is also catered for, with raked choir seating behind the main orchestra area. Add to that the 350-audience capacity and the Hall becomes the setting for smaller-scale concerts that do not naturally lend themselves to St David’s Hall. Rightly, that remains BBCNOW’s principal performing space. With its wrap-around expanse of wood, including spruce of which so many string instruments are made, BBC Hoddinott Hall is an elegant space, despite minor blots in the form of magenta textiles. Most importantly, the acoustic has a lovely warmth and clarity, permitting details of instrumentation to emerge vividly and augurs well both for recordings and for BBCNOW’s work in contemporary repertoire, not least because the intimacy of the space makes the audience feel totally involved.

For the inaugural weekend, it was understandable that the aim should be to demonstrate the versatility of both Hall and Orchestra, but it probably wasn’t such a good idea to programme some of the very music which would sound better elsewhere. So the less said about the in-your-face or, more exactly, in-your-ears, sound of Ravel’s Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé the better. While, in recording terms, it was clearly absolutely viable, this was not a great experience for the listener in the Hall. And, similarly, while Baiba Skride’s performance in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto had utterly magical moments, there could not but be reservations overall.

Varèse’s Ionisation didn’t seem to sit comfortably with anything else, but it was brilliantly played and symbolically had been in its day the first concert-hall composition for percussion ensemble. Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy also seemed random, but the nuances of colour that emerged in Llŷr Williams’s playing of the piano solo combined with the fine sound of the Chorus certainly demonstrated the eminent suitability of this space to its multiple purposes.

The Hall has been named in memory of Alun Hoddinott, who died in March 2008. Two of his works, played on successive nights, reflected both his fascination for the art of orchestration and the way that literary sources fired his imagination. Badger in the Bag – ostensibly playful, but with a sharply sinister edge – treats one of the ancient legends of the Mabinogion, while the darting movements of Lizard – inspired by a poem set in the sultry sun of Provence by Gwyn Thomas – belied the tenacious workings of a symphonic poem. Hoddinott is at his strongest when writing in elegiac vein, tapping into something intrinsically Celtic, but his implicit understanding of orchestral textures gives the music a characteristic colour.

A highly refined instrumental palette is the great virtue of Simon Holt’s writing and his tenure as BBCNOW’s composer-in-association was marked with the premiere of his St Vitus in the Kettle. Its scoring for wind, brass, percussion, harp and six double basses teased the ear with its subtle combinations of timbres, while the beautifully calibrated long-held chords, which were mesmerising at the time, still resonate in the memory.

BBCNOW gave the premiere of Holt’s Troubled Light in July 2008 at BBC Proms. The experience of hearing it in this acoustic was both revelatory and compelling, each ravishing texture succeeding the other with disarming fluency. Jac van Steen had made Hans Werner Henze’s Eighth Symphony equally vibrant. Apart from the obvious irony of the composer’s joyous evocation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream taking place in the depths of winter, this performance was thoroughly engaging, with the conductor emphasising the jazzy mood and such clarity of detail as to keep attention totally focused.

It augurs equally well for Cardiff that the Hall lends itself admirably to recitals and that given by the Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang with Llŷr Williams was a highlight of this opening weekend. Shenyang’s programme was a tribute to an idol of his, Hans Hotter, in his centenary year, and he delivered Lieder by Schubert, Brahms and Wolf with as sure and instinctive a feel as could be. His diction was impeccable, which helped make up for the fact that neither texts nor translations were provided for the audience, and the affinity of singer and pianist for this dark and often deeply sombre repertoire was evident. For a 24-year-old, Shenyang’s voice is quite remarkable, rich and velvety throughout the range, but also capable of such pianissimo as to make the spine tingle. He was also able to bring a dramatic surge to his performance which made Schubert’s Der Zwerg simply riveting, but came to the fore in the three Goethe settings by Wolf that, incidentally, echoed Simon Holt’s references to Goethe in Troubled Light. The strength of the partnership between singer and pianist ensured the most powerful of interpretations, underlining Williams’s extraordinary insight and the potential of Shenyang to become one of the big stars.

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