Walker Launches BBC’s Season of American Music

25/09/2013

 Thompson, Barber, Copland, Piston: Elena Urioste (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Garry Walker (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 24.9.2013 (PCG)

Virgil Thomson: Three pieces for orchestra
Barber: Violin Concerto
Copland: Inscape
Piston: Symphony No 6

This concert, entitled Americana, launched the BBC NoW’s contribution to Radio 3’s autumn season featuring American music. It was relayed to 267 other American public broadcast networks in the USA (presumably for later transmission), and will also be available on the BBC i-player for the next seven days. It will well repay listeners to tune in if they missed the live broadcast.

The programme opened with Virgil Thomson’s collection of three pieces written between 1947 and 1952. The booklet notes by Peter Reynolds, informative as always, told us that Philip Glass has famously claimed Thomson as a pioneer of minimalist composition; but there was little evidence of this in these tone poems. The first, The Seine at night, was a landscape painting in the tradition of Bax rather than Delius; but the later development of the music seemed to be driven more by musical considerations that pictorial ones. The use of flute flutter-tongue came from a different tradition, and what followed was more purely American in style with the contributions from harp and celesta beautifully touched in. The second movement, Wheat field at noon, opened with a gloriously phrased flute solo from Matthew Featherstone, but again the music broke free from a purely descriptive role into a development section which seemed more carefully contrived. Even less pictorial was the final Sea pieces with birds, which nevertheless had a real sense of purpose; Thomson’s use of polytonality was not just a compositional device, but served to propel the music forward. The unexpectedly abrupt final chord, leaving the tam-tam ringing on the air, anticipated Rachmaninov’s similar effect at the end of his Symphonic Dances (if indeed that was what Rachmaninov intended).

Elena Urioste delivered the opening of the Barber Violin Concerto at a real Allegro which at first seemed disconcertingly quick, but the music works better when not treated with too much rhapsodic freedom and there was plenty of light and shade in the playing. This made the slower middle section even more effective, when the opening melody blossomed out on the full strings; and the romantic effusion was all the better for not having been anticipated earlier. David Cowley played the oboe solo at the beginning of the second movement with exquisite phrasing in one of Barber’s most sheerly beautiful melodies; Urioste responded with playing of superbly controlled resonance. At the end of the movement the range of dynamics in the resonant acoustic of the Hoddinott Hall was huge, although one suspects this may not come over with such force in the broadcast sound. After that the finale was never going to seem more than lightweight; but the whirling perpetuum mobile still packed plenty of punch. This was a performance which looked at the well-known score with fresh eyes, and Uriaste played the music as to the manner born.

After the interval we heard Copland’s final orchestral work Inscape, but unfortunately the work never seemed like more than a failed experiment in the composer’s later twelve-tone style where Copland’s willingness to embrace new styles seemed to lack an imperative compositional drive. The tone-rows in themselves were not particularly memorable or interesting, although they became recognisable through sheer repetition; and the work sounded like a great many other academic scores of the 1950s and 1960s without adding anything new to the idiom. The excellent advocacy of Walker and the orchestra could not breathe life into this music, which one suspects would not have been judged worthy of revival were it not by Copland. However this performance was a decided improvement on that given by Copland himself on his recording with French National Orchestra.

The final item on the programme, Piston’s Sixth Symphony, similarly did not raise high expectations. Piston is generally known nowadays as the author of rather dry textbooks on harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, which remain standard works in university courses; his own music is almost entirely forgotten with the exception of the ballet The Incredible Flutist which retains a precarious hold on the fringes of the repertoire. It is unfortunate that, like Berlioz and Rimsky-Korsakov before him, Piston’s Orchestration cites examples from his own works to illustrate the points he makes, since (unlike Berlioz and Rimsky) the music itself is so rarely heard in the concert hall. But what we heard here was much more than just the academic exercise that Piston’s reputation as a pedagogue would lead us to expect. Walker kept the music on the move, which helped to sidestep any suspicion of aridity even when moments in the first movement unexpectedly showed that Piston had been listening closely to Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony. In the second movement the BBC NoW strings coped magnificently with Piston’s fiendishly headlong writing, although it was somehow typical of Piston that the material should be a fugato, and there were hints of Vaughan William’s Sixth in the trio. The heartfelt solo cello (played expressively by Emma-Jane Murphy) that opens the Adagio sereno is not the greatest of tunes, but Piston develops it well and extracts as much emotion from it as it will bear.; and Walker and the orchestra really made us believe that it could bear a great deal, especially in its final romantically rich statement. The bounce of the short final movement was irresistible, and served to convince an enthusiastic audience that this was much more than simply a utilitarian piece.

 

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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