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An ambitious concert

REX HARLEY listens to
Tchaikovsky, Lutoslawski and Szymanowski in Wales


Despite growing awareness of Szymanowski's importance as a composer, his first violin concerto has not yet achieved the place it deserves in the concert repertoire. One reason may be its unusual form: a single movement, with frequent shifts in tempo and, in the words of Robin Golding, 'interchangeable melodic fragments that emerge in a seamless flow that gives the impression of being a spontaneous improvisation.' The other reason, closely connected, is that it's a hard piece to pull off.

To their credit, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama Symphony Orchestra at St David's Hall, Cardiff, on Friday 21 February 2003, nearly did. They were only prevented by the soloist.

This is not to say that Krzysztof Smietana did not play well. His tone was clear and pure, his finger-work accurate. In fact, when he reached the cadenza, and there was no orchestra to get in the way, one began to get a flavour of how good this performance might have been. The problem was that his playing was so introspective that it disappeared into itself. There was no sense of projection, and therefore no communication with the audience. It genuinely seemed as if he were playing it to, and for, himself. Under these circumstances, there is only so much an orchestra, and their conductor, can do to compensate. If you keep on adjusting the dynamic markings downwards, any piece, and particularly such a rhapsodic piece as this, will simply come apart at the seams.

As it was, the aural focus shifted, so that a cymbal -- even a gently rapped tambourine -- stood out in a way the composer never intended. Meanwhile, one strained to hear the violin, so that even the nature of the audience's listening became unbalanced. Had it been a recording one was listening to, the blame would automatically have attached itself to a third-rate sound engineer.

Before this, we had been treated (if that's the right word) to a suitably stirring performance of Tchaikovsky's Marche Slave. For patriotic, more than musical, reasons, it received a complete encore on its first performance. Now, it sounds like the rather predictable war-horse it actually is, though the orchestra threw themselves at it with complete commitment. My abiding image, from the final bars, will be of the cymbal-player's hair flying up from her forehead with each abrupt crash of her instrument!

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Copyright © 2 March 2003 Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK


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