Sinfonia Cymru brings sense of discovery to familiar works

18/07/2011

Prokofiev, Schumann, Beethoven: Philip Higham (cello), Sinfonia Cymru / Gareth Jones (conductor), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Dramal, Cardiff, 16.7.2011 (GPu)

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1 in D, ‘Classical’
Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor
Beethoven: Symphony No.7 in A major

Sinfonia Cymru’s website (http://www.sinfoniacymru.co.uk/) carries an endorsement from Bryn Terfel: “The most important and significant orchestral development in Wales in recent years”. While one might quibble about the absoluteness of that judgement, there isn’t the slightest reason to doubt the immensely valuable contribution that this chamber orchestra has made to musical life in Wales since being founded, in 1996, by Gareth Jones, who remains its musical director and principal conductor.

Drawing on an ever-shifting pool of players (the orchestra was some forty strong at this particular concert), Sinfonia Cymru unites the best of young music students with young professionals and has set more than a few musicians on their way into the profession. As well as its concerts, Sinfonia Cymru is responsible for workshops, community events, children’s concerts and the like, in many parts of Wales. ‘Outreach activities’ is one of those jargon phrases which more or often than not irritates more than it illuminates; but it does seem genuinely appropriate for Sinfonia Cymru’s work, which takes them to many venues around Wales where musicianship of the calibre they provide would otherwise never be heard.

They have won the respect not only of audiences but also of established performers – the roll call of those they have worked with is already impressive: Terfel, Alina Ibragimova, Jean-Philippe Collard, Rebecca Evans, Llyr Williams, Michael Collins and Peter Donohue to name but a few. They have an ongoing relationship with a number of these musicians.

A partnership/residency with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama made possible this, their debut performance in the splendid new Dora Stoutzker Hall. The orchestra were joined by one of their alumni as soloist. Philip Higham was principal cello of Sinfonia Cymru, 2007-2008. Since then he has begun to make his way as a respected soloist around Europe. In 2008 he won first prize in the International Bach competition in Leipzig and in the next year followed up that success by being awarded first prize in Warsaw’s International Lutoslawski Competition. In 2010 he won second prize at the Grand Prix Emanuel Feuermann Competition in Berlin.

Only four days ago I was listening to Baiba Skride play Prokofiev’s first violin concerto at the Hoddinott Hall down by Cardiff Bay. Now here (in an even newer concert hall) was the chance to hear another of Prokofiev’s compositions from 1917, something of an annus mirabilis for the young composer, since it also saw the writing of two piano sonatas, ‘Seven, They Are Seven’ and productive work on both the third piano concerto and the early stages of ‘The Love for Three Oranges’. The first symphony is a teasing work, mixing elements of classical pastiche with some unexpected harmonic touches, firmly tonal yet with some striking dissonances, full of shifts, often unexpected, between tonal centres. The four movement structure is classical enough and there’s more than a little of ‘Papa’ Haydn about its essential good humour. But it remains ambiguous, unwilling to allow simple definition. Gareth Jones and his orchestra responded well to the crispness and precision of Prokofiev’s scoring, notably in the opening allegro which was invigorated and invigorating and captured much of the wit in Prokofiev’s scoring. Just a little of the magic of the larghetto was missing; the main theme was certainly ‘molto dolce’ as marked, but there was a slightly dutiful quality to the playing of some of the movement’s other music. The Gavotta (later to be recycled in Romeo and Juliet) was a delight, and one sensed Prokofiev’s indebtedness to, and desire to make a personal reinscription of, the traditions of Russian ballet as well as those of Viennese classicism. The playing of the finale communicated all the joy and effervescence of Prokofiev’s writing. Like the Violin Concerto, this is a work that appears to register absolutely nothing of what was going on around Prokofiev in the Russia of 1917!

Philip Higham’s playing seemed a little on the tight side in the early stages of the Schumann concerto, perhaps through nerves or excessive caution, his sound a little constricted. But things improved rapidly and Higham was soon demonstrating very eloquently the lyricism of Schumann’s writing. In the first section (the work’s three movements are played without a break) Higham’s work in the lower register was particularly impressive. Higham’s sound is not large, but the range of tone in his playing is admirable and there is real eloquence to much of his phrasing. His reading of the central slow section was intimate and small scale, in an articulate account of Schumann’s meditative writing which drew out its nocturnal poetry very pleasingly. In the closing section the rhythms were sure and there was a deal of satisfaction to be had in the way Higham and Jones handled what Clara Schumann described as “the highly interesting interweaving of cello and orchestra”. Higham was utterly convincing in the accompanied cadenza in this section, in which Jones and the Orchestra were delicacy itself. Higham is already a very accomplished musician and his playing holds promise of even better.

The nature of the Schumann concerto casts the orchestra in a relatively subordinate (though very important) role. After the interval Sinfonia Cymru had the spotlight to itself in Beethoven’s Seventh and we were treated to a thoroughly rewarding performance. In the first movement the clarity of texture was pleasingly evident and the playing had a slight ‘edge’ which complemented the rhythmical alertness and well-judged tempi of Gareth Jones’ conducting. There was plenty of vigour and ebullience in the tutti of this first movement, though just once or twice the orchestral sound wasn’t perfectly integrated. In the allegretto which followed the clarity of line was a great virtue and, though the ‘funeral march’ rhythmic motif in A minor was as prominent as it should be, the (attractive) effect of the movement was more to suggest an intimacy of personal feeling and thought than anything public or ceremonial. In the presto and the closing allegro we were clearly in a realm at least as much public as private. Maynard Solomon saw this symphony in terms of carnival, as existing in “a festive Paradise, outside of time and history” and occupying “a sphere of laughter, play, and the exuberant release of bound energy”. Such language seemed particularly apt when listening to a performance such as this, so full of joie de vivre and vivacity, of life-affirmation, and even characterised by a certain appropriate brashness of sound at moments (as well as by some complementary gentleness). Gareth Jones’ judgement of dynamic gradation was exemplary and the whole ended in a climax of radiantly aggressive vitality. It was a triumph for the orchestra. There is always something distinctively exciting about hearing an accomplished young orchestra, well-led; the playing of such an orchestra can make the listener hear familiar works anew, played by musicians for whom there is a sense of fresh discovery in the very act of playing. This was such an occasion.

Glyn Pursglove

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