Pan-European Aspect to BBC NOW’s Impressive Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Chabrier, de Falla, Walton, Delius, Tippett: Javier Perianes (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Michael Francis (conductor), BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 11.9.12 (GPu)

Chabrier: España
De Falla: Night in the Gardens of Spain
Walton: Siesta
Delius: In a Summer Garden
Tippett: The Midsummer Marriage – Ritual Dances

The kind of European integration that the Euro represents may have run into serious problems, but another kind of cross-European integration continues to flourish – that mutual fertilisation generated in the interplay of European musical idioms. This well-designed programme sampled the tradition with five works that had their first performances between 1883 and 1953.

Chabrier’s España was the fruit of six months spent in Spain in 1882; he was fascinated by many aspects of Spanish culture, most obviously the music and while there he made notes which fed into the work he wrote on his return to Paris. Essentially a sonata, España’s two main themes juxtapose the quick, strong rhythms of the jota and the more lyrical patterns of the malagueña. Chabrier’s interest in Spanish music was real yet, while it would be unfair to suggest that he treats his Spanish materials merely as colourful exotica, España does undeniably have about it the sense of a world observed from some distance. But the brilliance of the orchestral colours Chabrier deploys makes it a piece one is always happy (and it is a happy-making piece!) to hear again. Michael Francis and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales relished the piece’s possibilities in a richly vivacious reading, full of effective dynamic contrasts and a very real sense of the dance; the brass, in particular were on excellent form.

While España may be Spain seen from a Gallic point of view (and, of course, Chabrier was by no means the only French composer of his time to be fascinated by things Spanish), De Falla’s music is very much native to the Spanish tradition (for all that, in another example of European ‘integration’ he, like many another Spanish composer, studied in Paris). Hearing Night in the Gardens of Spain straight after España the difference was striking, as one realised how much more organically Spanish de Falla’s music is, how more weighted with history and tradition, than that of Chabrier. And perhaps that sense was enhanced by the presence of the fine young Spanish pianist Javier Perianes to play the solo part. His unforced Spanish ‘accent’ and musical personality was integral to a very fine performance, in which he was very ably and intelligently supported by Francis and the orchestra. Perianes’ touch was percussive yet sensitive, and the interplay of piano and orchestra was superb throughout. Francis seems to have a particularly good ear for the balance between sections and in the splendidly clear acoustic of the Hoddinott Hall the oxymoronic transparency and richness of de Falla’s orchestral writing was a real joy.

Sir William Walton’s European integration famously took the form, in his later life, of setting up house (and garden) on the Island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples. The infrequently played Siesta was written rather earlier, in 1926 – when the composer was 24, and when he was actually in Munich – before being revised in 1962 (Walton having moved to Ischia in 1949). It is a miniature masterpiece, its lyrical sense of desire and dream soaked (surely) in a sunlit sleepiness that is far more Mediterranean than English. The characteristically Waltonian fusion of sweetness and acidity is delightful, in five minutes of wonderfully evocative music, conducted with real insight and played with assured commitment (not least by cellist Keith Hewitt).

Delius, born in Yorkshire of German parentage, wrote In A Summer Garden inspired by the garden of the house at Grez-sur-Loing, near Fontainebleau, which he shared with the German painter, Helene Jelka Rosen. As Michael Francis pointed out in an on-stage interview, the music was written in the spring of 1908; it wasn’t, that is to say, a response to an actual summer garden but an anticipation of what the garden was to become. Full of flutterings, trillings and ripplings, balanced by moments of near stasis, Delius’ music is full of shades and subtleties, the brightness always more in potential than actual. Michael Francis controlled, unobtrusively, all aspects of the music, and all sections of the orchestra, not least the woodwinds (especially flautist Matthew Featherstone), distinguished themselves in another convincing reading.

A fine lunchtime concert ended with a powerfully dramatic (and very lucid) performance of the Ritual Dances from Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage. Tippett’s eclectic (yet well integrated) opera brings together many strands of inspiration, at least one of which takes us back to the ‘European’ dimension of this concert. Tippett himself recounted how one of the starting points for the opera was an ‘illumination’ in which he ‘saw a stage picture … of a wooded hilltop with a temple, where a warm and soft young man was being rebuffed by a cold and hard young woman … I saw the girl later descending in a costume reminiscent of the goddess Athena (who was born without father from Zeus’s head) and the man ascending in one reminiscent of the god Dionysus (who, son of earth-born Semele, had a second birth from Zeus’s thigh)’. We are back at the very roots of the European mind and emotions and this, coupled with Tippett’s fascination with Jungian archetypal thought, gives to the music of these dances a universality, a kind of all-embracing vigour and energy, qualities which Michael Francis elicited from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in abundance, shaping the music with a thoroughly persuasive sense of pattern and climax in a manner that was altogether exhilarating, and simultaneously reflective. By the time we reached the end of this programme we had had far more than a metaphorical helping of Mediterranean sunshine (welcome though that was); we had been helped to understand the genuine unity which underlies those obvious differences which make up ‘Europe’.

Glyn Pursglove