BBC National Orchestra of Wales Celebrates Principality’s South American Links

24/09/2015

 Fiesta Sinfónica: Argentina – Buchardo, Castor, Piazzolla, Berkeley, Ginastera: James Crabb (accordion), Lucas Somoza Osterc (baritone), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Edwin Outwater (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 18.9.2015 (PCG)

Carlos López Buchardo (1881-1948) – Escenas argentinas (1920-22)
Juan José Castro (1895-1968) – Sinfonia argentina (1934): Arrabal
Astor Piazzolla (1921-92) – Concerto for bandoneón (1979)
Michael Berkeley (b.1948) – Tango! (2015)
Alberto Ginastera (1916-83) – Estancia (1941) [complete ballet]

This was the first of an ongoing series of three concerts scheduled to herald the forthcoming tour by BBC National Orchestra of Wales to South America to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Welsh-speaking colony in Patagonia. The music of Latin America is generally familiar to British audiences only through the work of the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, with other composers such as Ginastera and Piazzolla hovering on the fringes of the repertoire. In more recent years the advocacy of Gustavo Dudamel with his young Venezuelan players has introduced us to other Latin American composers, but much of this has been through the medium of short and generally light-hearted pieces; and this concert gave us the opportunity to encounter more serious works by some of these otherwise almost unknown composers.

It has to be said however that the quarter-of-an-hour-long Escenas argentinas by Carlos López Buchardo was not a particularly auspicious start. The work clearly reflected the composer’s studies with Roussel and showed European impressionist influences, although the orchestration was often more akin to Respighi than anything specifically French. In places the first movement teetered on the brink of ‘light music,’ but the lyrical central section was more emotionally engaging. The first performance of this piece was surprisingly given by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Felix Weingartner, but one cannot imagine that it these players would have been any better than those of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales here. At the same time the percussion writing was unusually elaborate for a work of this period, but some of the tuned glittering figuration almost appeared to be applied externally. The central movement was a full-blooded romantic episode, but the final segment with its downbeat ending took the audience by surprise.

The first movement (all we were given here) of Castro’s Sinfonia argentina was a more robust and serious piece. Castro had given the first Argentinian performance of The Rite of Spring, and the influence of Stravinsky was all-pervasive in the thundering chords of the opening, and produced an overwhelming volume in the small acoustic of the Hoddinott Hall. Indeed there were precious few moments of stillness or quiet in this movement, even the more subdued sections of the score containing hints of barely contained violence; and the sensual conclusion was achieved only with an effort. More light and shade in the performance itself might have helped, although one imagines that the complete symphony would have a greater degree of variety.

In a spoken introduction the soloist James Crabb explained that he was playing Piazzolla’s Bandoneón Concerto on a concert accordion, with steel reeds rather than the more pungent trumpet stops of the German instrument which was adopted by Argentinian immigrants in the second half of the 19th century. Unfortunately this led to problems of internal balance in the score, at any rate in the concert hall (I imagine the microphones on the live broadcast would have produced quite a different effect). During the opening section, although we could see James Crabb working very hard indeed, we could hardly hear him at all. The reduced number of strings could probably have been further thinned out to advantage, but it was not until a couple of minutes into the piece that the sound of the soloist could be properly appreciated. The rapt chamber-like textures at the start of the slow movement were however very evocative, and the interplay with the solo violin, cello and harp was beautifully handled by all concerned. The more neo-classical textures of the finale allowed the accordion to penetrate to more effect, but I was left to wonder whether in the context of live performances a degree of discreet amplification of the solo instrument might have helped. As it was, only those sitting close to the soloist in the hall would have been ideally served. James Crabb was deservedly cheered by an audience which included the composer’s great-granddaughter.

After the interval we heard the world première of the short five-minute Tango! written by Michael Berkeley to commemorate the anniversary of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia (Berkeley has adopted Wales as his homeland, living and farming in Powys). It was a jeu d’esprit, effectively a slow introduction followed by a series of piquant variations on the main theme, with some soaring counterpoints which showed off the strings of the orchestra at their superb best. It was a slight score, but highly enjoyable.

The concert concluded with Ginastera’s Estancia, a work relatively familiar in the concert suite which the composer extracted from his one-act ballet; but here we were given the ballet score in full, which is a rarity indeed. In fact much of the material is featured in the suite, the main additions being two songs and a narration for baritone soloist as well as a few frankly descriptive sections. The songs and narration were given in Spanish, but it seemed perverse (especially since the spoken narration was quite extensive) to provide neither texts nor translations in such unfamiliar material. Sections of the score such as La manana have a sense of warmth that contrasts startlingly with Ginastera’s later acerbic style (I remarked upon his remarkable almost schizophrenic contrast of writing earlier this year when reviewing his Popul Vuh in this same hall). In a work generally so reliant on powerful rhythmic drive, it was disappointing to note very slight lack of ensemble in one or two places. This might have been obviated if the conductor had used a baton; the precision of a stick can really make a difference sometimes, and in the frenetic final section Edwin Outwater seemed to be almost content to allow the percussion section to drive the music forward, contenting himself with general indications of mood. One brief ticking passage, repeated three times, suggested suddenly and bizarrely that Ginastera had been listening to Carl Orff’s Der Mond; and at other times there were even suggestions of Sibelius in the beautifully atmospheric second song delivered with a real sense of rapt mystery by the smooth-toned Lucas Somoza Osterc and quite unlike anything else in the score. This would have been even more effective if we had been given a hint as to what the music at this point was actually about.

I should mention that the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are not the only Welsh musical organisation commemorating the Patagonian settlement with a tour this autumn. Côr Cenedlaethol Ieuenctid Cymru, the National Youth Choir of Wales, are giving concerts during October in Buenos Aires, Trelew and Gaiman as part of a ten-day visit, and the programme will include a felicitous combination of Argentinian and Welsh music including works by contemporary Welsh composers such as Paul Mealor, Hilary Tann and Mervyn Burtch (whose sad death earlier this year deserves to be the subject of such a tribute).

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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