Eternal Longing

Eternal Longing
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
The Firebird [1945 Suite]

Llŷr Williams (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 21 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

They say a week is a long time in politics. The same might be said of music. After Jiří Bělohlávek splendid Mahler 9 with the Scottish National Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival a few days earlier, this concert – on paper an attractive programme – proved a dispiriting affair. Bělohlávek takes over as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the start of Proms 2006. A pity it is not sooner for the orchestra is clearly in need of his attention.

Least satisfactory was Llŷr Williams’s grey performance of the Schumann. It takes quite a lot to make this work dull; but despite a competent, supportive accompaniment, Williams seemed to have little to say about this music, consistently dragging it back to a point where it had nowhere to go. Nor was there much in the way of light and shade in his dynamics, save an all-purpose mezzo forte. With the work’s delectable interplay between piano and woodwinds, there is a case for an intimate approach, but this was not it. Very little personality was evident on the part of the soloist. Bělohlávek did his best to inject some vigour into the first movement’s conclusion, and accompanied sensitively in the ‘Intermezzo’, but the finale needed a shot of adrenaline.

The evening opened with Vítĕzslav Novák’s tone poem for large orchestra, Eternal Longing, written between 1903-1905 and included as part of the Proms 2005’s ‘fairy tale’ theme. Based on a short extract of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Picture-book without Pictures”, the programme describes a flight of swans – eventually a single swan – above an ocean. An example of Czech impressionism, this beautiful, melodious music is well worth an occasional outing, and it received here a confident and affectionate performance distinguished by several fine solos, notably from violist Caroline Harrison. However, at the first of the piece’s two major climaxes, where the massed violins soar aloft – or should soar aloft – the BBC Symphony’s strings were distinctly under-powered.

The 1945 version of The Firebird was also of variable quality. Frankly, it should be possible, especially in this repertoire, to achieve a better level of orchestral response than was on display here, Bělohlávek having to work hard to achieve a semblance of unanimity from the strings in the ‘Dance of the Firebird’ despite the modest speed. Likewise, there was some distinctly sub-standard brass-playing in the ‘Infernal Dance’. Yet there were some excellent cameos – fine horn solos (despite one fluff) from Timothy Brown, sensitive bassoons in the ‘Lullaby’ and Richard Simpson’s pliant, singing oboe. More’s the pity that the remainder of the orchestra sounded so disengaged. The performance was further marred by disruptive applause between sections; by the time the work’s dénouement was reached, atmosphere had well and truly dissipated.

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