The Christmas season is usually a busy time for most musicians. Though the players of BBC National Orchestra/Chorus of Wales appear to be in overtime during this hectic period.
In a live radio broadcast concert at Hoddinott Hall, an afternoon of winter music set the tone of the season. Ballet music from Alexander Glazunov commenced proceedings in a piece of slight interest, if little else. His choice to write a ballet about each of the seasons sounds inspired (let’s not forget how Vivaldi uses them to great effect) and could be filled with varied scope. In the Winter section, we get a few piffy sections trying to emulate the chill of the colder temperature and fairy tale visions of trolls warming up by an open fire. These fleeting passages have little worth and pass by without any fascination. The audience not knowing the piece had ended only added to the awkward, fragmented nature of these brief slices of icy dance music.
Cellist Anastasia Kobekina delighted with the Variations on a Rococo Theme, making for a spiffy concerto for this concert. The piece only reaffirms Tchaikovsky’s fan boy tendencies for Mozart, by far his most adored of all the composers. This look back at the past is filled with sumptuous moment for Kobekina, who’s concentration is evident in every facial muscle. Her ardent playing made for a compelling twenty odd minutes, in a piece that may not be as interesting as you’d expect it to be. This is a young musician to look out for.
Gergely Madaras kept everything together as conductor and this lead to the final piece on the programme. More Tchaikovsky is never a bad thing, especially after their recent scintillating performance of his 6th Symphony a few weeks back. A venture back much further in the Russian composer’s career gave us a chance to hear his First Symphony, or ‘Winter Daydreams’ as he later dubbed it. This is a fine example of a first journey into the symphonic repertoire. It’s bold and breezy, filled with a youthful gloss that is heard throughout. A slow movement proved an emotional balance to the heady other parts, rest bite for the keen listener. It’s nowhere near as captivating as his later work, but it is a marker for things to come.
The very next day, the BBC National Chorus of Wales were joined by the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. This is standard Christmas fare, though it always does feel like a great occasion. Here the story of Christ’s birth is told through biblical passages, via the libretto of Charles Jennens. Handel was in hard times writing this oratorio, after the Italian opera bubble burst, when London audiences had their fill of the art form. I’ll confess I don’t think this is his best work (let’s not forget that royalty fell asleep during the premier in Dublin), but that doesn’t stop there from being some magical moments either way (his utilisation of word-painting is masterful).
The joy of Messiah is the shared music making between the chorus, soloists and the instrumentalists. The chorus, of course shine here as they should, with the bulk of the material given to them throughout the two hours of music. The musicians from WNO are also noteworthy for the superb accompaniment, string heavy with a small band of woodwind and cameo brass numbers. Even just seeing the timpani is a delight. Seeing a commendable Freddie Brown behind the strings speed between harpsichord and miniature organ was occasionally noticeable. Maestro Christoph Poppen dealt with the drama within with great resilience and fortitude.
The quartet of soloists got some demanding solos. Bass James Platt was proud, making mincemeat out of most of the material. His rendition of ‘Why do the nations so furiously rage’ whips through the words, a head turning take, though I don’t think he quite got away with it. His voice waned towards the end, though earlier in the night it had an attractive feel. Soprano Soraya Mafi had some very tender moments, in arias which seem to rise to the heavens.
Tenor Trystan Llŷr Griffiths appears to be battling a cough during the first part of the night (it also sounded like half the audience was losing as well), though he quickly recovered and offered a voice with appeasing qualities, the high notes not really being any bother for him. You only need to have looked at mezzo Madeleine Shaw to see how much the music meant to her. She remained enveloped when not singing, then glorious when singing. I found her version of ‘He was despised and rejected of men’ a show stopping moment, her only solo in the second half of the night. Truly a moment of hushed, emotional intrigue and the highlight of the entire work for me.
The famous Hallelujah Chorus was sung with vigour, as we all traditionally stood, concluding the second part of the piece. I also find Handle’s sparing use of the trumpet works very well in his favour. The joining of a lone trumpet towards the finale created joyous harmonies with other instrumentalists, raising the spirits to greater heights. The final, triumphant chorus filled with a plethora of ‘amens’, also stays with you as you leave.
With a concert like this, it looks like Christmas came just that little bit earlier this year.
BBC NOW wrap up the festive period with their Christmas Celebration concerts at St David’s Hall on Friday 13th December and Brangwyn Hall, Swansea on 16th December 2019.
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