Good things On and Off-Stage from Sinfonia Cymru

Haydn, Lewis, Beethoven: Catrin Finch (harp), Sinfonia Cymru, Gareth Jones (conductor), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff 16.6.2012. (GPu)

Haydn: Symphony No. 88 in G major
Lewis: Harp Concerto: Mabinogi
Beethoven: Symphony No.3, Eroica

Sinfonia Cymru has been active for some sixteen years, though this has been its first full year as a professional chamber orchestra. It exists to support and promote young talent, in which it already has a considerable track record, and its own work is supported by the Colwinston Charitable Trust. A central role is in giving young musicians (many of them recent graduates of the conservatoires) the opportunity for professional orchestral experience. At the same time the orchestra has often led the way in taking good quality orchestral concerts to parts of Wales where such things are a relative rarity.

Over the years Sinfonia Cymru has collaborated with, amongst others, Rebecca Evans, Llŷr Williams and Bryn Terfel as well as with young soloists such as Jiafeng Chen and Philip Higham. This year they have added another dimension to their work by establishing a new bursary scheme, ‘Professional Pathways’, in collaboration with the RWCMD; the scheme seeks to offer ‘exceptional musicians who demonstrate the high quality of musical talent that Sinfonia Cymru exists to nurture and support. Each recipient will receive much needed financial assistance towards the cost of their studies and will be offered consistent professional chamber orchestral experience throughout Sinfonia Cymru’s 2102/13 season’. The first two winners, violinist Máté Rácz and oboist Sam Baxter were introduced before the concert and each played (very winningly) a solo piece. Opportunity was also taken to introduce (and for the audience to hear) Bartosz Woroch who will be the orchestra’s guest leader for the 2012-13 season.

Still, all this excellent work, admirable and desirable as it is, needs to justify itself in music-making of real quality. Happily the standards of Sinfonia Cymru are high, due in no small part to the work of its founding music director Gareth Jones, experienced as a conductor with Welsh National Opera, with the Hallé, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the RPO, Manchester Camerata and many other leading orchestras. He clearly has the ability and the temperament (which not all conductors share!) to get the best out of talented but necessarily experienced young players.

This particular concert included the first new work Sinfonia Cymru has been able to commission for some years (thanks to the assistance of Sir Alan and Lady Cox). This was a harp concerto for Catrin Finch, which reflects on and partly ‘translates’ into music the spirit and narrative thrust of the Mabinogion – that collection of eleven medieval Welsh tales which is one of the glories of the narrative prose of the Middle Ages. Wisely, Lewis chose largely to eschew minute pictorialism making no attempt to represent musically every twist and tale of particular stories. His three-sectioned work comes something like full circle, evoking some of the images and much of the spirit of the Mabinogi along the way. It enacts musically the journey of the soldiers of Bendigeidfan (King of the Island of Britain) after battle in Ireland, from Harlech to Arberth (in Dyfed). After a slow introduction, in which the harp is established as a kind of storyteller, there is a hectic journey conducted against the insistent quasi-metronomic sound of the woodblock) which brings a time of peace and feasting; in Gwales ‘they found a great handsome royal hall overlooking the sea; they entered and found two doors open and a third closed, the one on the Cornwall side. “There is the door we must not open,” said Manawaydan’ (translation by Jeffrey Gantz). The final part of Lewis’s work is concerned with what is beyond these three doors. Catrin Finch was a thoroughly assured and charismatic soloist, not least in her improvised cadenzas, and in the lucidity with which she introduced the musical materials. The orchestral playing was excellent, whether in the introduction’s sense of anticipated drama, the fiercely percussive writing of some of the initial narrative or the idyllic music of the central section. Although seeing what the composer’s point was, I found the extent of the repetition in the final section of materials from the first just a little overdone. Still, this was an accessible, intriguing and very largely satisfying premiere of which all concerned could be proud.

The evening had begun with a crisp performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, in which the almost conversational structure of the adagio introduction to the opening allegro immediately established a convincing sense of idiom, evoking that civilised (but never over-civilised air) of which Haydn is such a master. There is plenty of harmonic inventiveness (one reason why the music is never merely ‘civilised’) and some striking orchestration in the rest of the movement, and the young orchestra coped very well with the music’s demands; Gareth Jones’s control of sectional balance and tempo was impressive. The largo that follows is a wonderful movement, and the solo cello and oboe opening was played delightfully before the entry of the strings. As the variations were developed the vivacity of Haydn’s sense of orchestral colour is made very apparent, and Jones and his orchestra relished its possibilities. The dramatic entry of timpani and trumpets for the first time made precisely the impact it should. The minuet and trio were full of a kind of rustic dignity and warmth; the Trio’s evocation of Hungarian folk music altogether delightful. The finale blends seeming innocence and simplicity with highly-tutored complexity (perhaps one of the secrets of that unpretentious deep wisdom one so often feels in Haydn’s music?) in music which builds up considerable momentum and ends with a rousing coda – all of it very decently handled by conductor and orchestra. This was a performance which would surely have tempted any listener new to Haydn and satisfied those with more knowledge of his music, and one can’t ask for much more than that.

The concert was brought t o a close by a performance of the Eroica. The terse opening impressed and the complex development of the first movement was well elucidated, without any loss of rhythmic drive, and there was much fine playing from all sections. The remarkable marcia funebre of the second movement was the one moment of relative weakness in this performance; there were moments when the sectional balance didn’t sound quite right and the sheer gravity of the music perhaps escaped this youthful orchestra (perhaps because of their very youthfulness it was as if the music was wanting them to communicate areas of emotional experience which were a little beyond them as yet). I don’t mean to imply that the reading of the movement was ‘bad’, merely that it didn’t plumb the very depths of the movement’s emotional journey (but I have heard more lauded orchestras make a worse job of it!). Conversely, the allegro vivace of the scherzo and trio positively benefitted from the abundance of youthful ebullience in the playing, a splendid reading of a movement which (perhaps because of what we had heard earlier in the evening) made one think of a slightly more raucous Haydn. The finale got a thoroughly competent performance; its fusing and juxtaposing of idioms and forms – variation, rondo and fugue, the humorous and the quasi-hymnal, abundant dancing rhythms – ensures that it has no ‘simple’ character. Gareth Jones and Sinfonia Cymru allowed all these elements their full weight (though I was particularly captivated by their sense of the dance). This was an intelligent and accomplished performance of great music, well on a par with anything one could expect to hear from an orchestra of similar standing.

This was a fine evening – heartening for the abundant evidence of all the good work being done both onstage and offstage (bursaries etc) by Sinfonia Cymru. Long may that good work, and the orchestra’s collaboration with the Royal Welsh College of Music and drama continue!

Glyn Pursglove