Mathias’s Third Symphony is a Revelation

15/04/2018

Mathias, Mozart, Bruch, Huw Watkins: Anneliene van Wauwe (clarinet), Eivind Holtsmark Ringstad (viola), Llŷr Williams (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Grant Llewellyn (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 13.4.2018. (PCG)

Huw Watkins – Three Welsh Songs

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.22

Bruch – Double Concerto for clarinet, viola and orchestra

Mathias – Symphony No.3

It is one of the greatest pleasures than can befall a critic, or indeed any listener, when they attend a performance of a work which transforms their impression of the music to such an extent as happened here with William Mathias’s Third Symphony. I had not heard the first performance of the score, given by the same orchestra and conductor in 1991, but had long been familiar with the Nimbus recording by the same artists issued a year later (and following the death of the composer, who had been present at the sessions). I do not know how many of the players in this concert had participated in those original performances, but there was a real sense here of the orchestra engaging with the score with a sense of new discovery. In his earlier years Mathias had a habit of falling into near-imitation of composers whom he admired, most notably Tippett. In his final symphony, clearly intended as a summation of his work, the opening movement contained traces of Shostakovich in the Babi-Yar echoes of the bells, but otherwise Mathias was very much his own man. That was particularly the case with the powerful slow movement; it had a sense of very real anger which gripped the audience in the hall in a manner that the otherwise excellent recording had failed to approach. The final movement was less concisely organised, shifting uneasily from one texture to another, but the playing of the orchestra, excited and febrile by turns, minimised the sense of disparity to provide a forceful argument. Since his death, the music of Mathias has continued to attract new listeners, and one would hope that the magnificent performance here may contribute to this trend. It was broadcast live on Radio 3 but will continue to be available on the BBC iPlayer for a further month.

This performance provided a rousing conclusion to a concert which was intended, a day late, to celebrate the 90th anniversary season of the first performance by the forerunner of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The afternoon had opened with a Huw Watkins’s Three Welsh Songs, written for the players in 2009 to commemorate the 60th birthday of Prince Charles as patron of the orchestra. The opening movement featured a woozy-sounding arrangement of ‘All through the night’, with sleazily drunken harmonies set against a sprightly folk dance. In the second movement, the beautiful ‘Lisa Lân’ was treated with greater respect. A bare harmonisation evoked a mist-laden sense of nostalgia which avoided the sentimental atmosphere than has been applied to alternative settings of the melody. The finale was joyously bustling and properly celebratory. In the past I have noted Huw Watkins’s tendency to avoid a sense of firm conclusion to his works – either they simply come to a halt in mid-phrase or die away into silence – but here we had a perilously high cadence on the violins which produced a most satisfactory effect. The composer was present in the hall and was enthusiastically applauded by a near-capacity audience.

Between these two Welsh works we heard two concertos. Llŷr Williams gave, as one would expect from an artist of his stature, a well-considered and beautifully inflected performance of Mozart’s K482, a work written at the same time as Le nozze di Figaro, and the composer’s most extended piano concerto. The performance was extended even further by the presence of two substantial cadenzas; since Mozart failed to provide any cadenzas of his own, I presume that those heard here were by the soloist himself, and they showed definite signs of enjoyable experimentation in some passages which looked forward well beyond Beethoven. Llŷr Williams at the same time showed due deference to the performance practice of the composer’s own period by providing further ornamentation of Mozart’s original lines, most notably in the minuet episode which interrupts the rondo finale where the original figurations were subjected to considerable elaboration. There are clearly places where Mozart would have expected this – held notes in the solo part which positively invite improvisation – and the results were enchanting.

It was perhaps unfortunate that the announcement by Nicola Haywood Thomas laid such stress on the rarity of performances of Bruch’s Double Concerto, since this same orchestra had in fact given a performance of the score back in 2014 with two fine local soloists in the shape of Robert Plane and Lise Berthaud. It cannot be said that the performance here, with two current or recent BBC Radio 3 New Generation artists Anneliene van Wauwe and Eivind Holtsmark Ringstad, eclipsed that earlier outing. In a review of that previous concert, I had commented on the tendency of the clarinet to eclipse the contribution of the viola (this is less evident in recorded performances and can of course be obviated in the broadcast sound), but this continued to be a problem here in the hall acoustic. The plangently lyrical tone of Ringstad failed to penetrate the orchestral sound to the same degree as the more forthright van Wauwe. It is interesting to note that Bruch’s score allows for the role of the clarinet to be taken over by a solo violin; I have never heard the work given in this way, but the existence of a Bruch double string concerto might surely be of interest to players wishing to move outside the field of the ubiquitous first violin concerto or the Scottish Rhapsody. The balance between the two solo players was much better maintained in their enterprising encore, a rarity in the form of an Allegro duo for clarinet and viola by Rebecca Clarke. Freed from the need to project over the orchestra, van Wauwe and Ringstad produced a chamber-music like delicacy of tone which was thoroughly entertaining.

 In my review of their last concert at this venue I commented with approval on the superlative service being given to Welsh music by the BBC during the current season. The performance of the Mathias Third Symphony here clearly demonstrated the need for this support to be maintained into second and third performances of commissioned works, and the ear-opening results than can result from this. Contemporary Welsh composers continue to be well served this summer: Composers of Wales are promoting three spotlights on the music of Gareth Churchill (Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff on 4 May), Rhian Samuel (Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 6 May) and Guto Puw (Bangor Pontio on 13 May) in concerts given by Ensemble Cymru. During the same month, the Vale of Glamorgan Festival as always includes some highly enterprising programmes. A couple of months back I reviewed a BBC concert featuring (among others) an engaging orchestral piece by Luciano Williamson; I am pleased to note that his Piano Concerto is receiving its première at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff on 6 May. Details of all these events can be found on the relevant websites; and one hopes that the BBC commitment to new music will be extended further into new revelations during their season this autumn.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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