Outstanding Performance of Vaughan Williams Symphony at Swansea Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Jones, Elgar, Vaughan Williams: Julian Lloyd Webber (cello), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Owain Arwel Hughes (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 6.10.2012 (GPu)

Daniel Jones: Symphony No. 11
Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto in E Minor
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.2 (A London Symphony)

In the year of his centenary it was appropriate that a work by the Swansea composer Daniel Jones should have been the opening work in the first orchestral concert of the Swansea Festival 2012; that aptness was further enhanced, given that Jones’s Symphony No. 11 was actually commissioned by Swansea festival (and the Arts Council of Wales) and was dedicated to the memory of George Froom Tyler, a great supporter of the Swansea Festival.

The first movement, marked intensivo, contains some striking sonorities at its opening and a passage for oboes and clarinets over a kettle drum roll into which horns and bassoons make interventions, and which leads to a series of powerful climaxes. The mood is, indeed, intense and much in the music is compact and compressed. By contrast the second movement (Capriccioso) is very playful, succinct and light after the considerable weight and length of the first movement. The third movement (which again opens in attention-grabbing fashion) is marked ‘elegiaco’ and its first phase is grand and ceremonial in its elegiac address, before the music gives way to something which, while altogether more intimate, continues the mood, the music of private rather than public grieving. A beautiful passage for solo flute and sustained strings was memorably played, an expression of loss without any temptation to excess or empty rhetoric. I had not previously heard this particular symphony by Jones and up to this point,was much impressed by its power and range and by the subtlety of many of its orchestral effects. I found the last movement (‘Risoluto – Maestoso) somewhat disappointing, not ‘big’ enough (and I don’t just mean in terms of length, although it is rather brief) to serve adequately as a concluding balance to what has gone before. The composer’s note on the symphony (reproduced in the programme) makes clear the sense(s) in which the movement functions as part of the harmonic argument, but in terms of some of the other properly symphonic dimensions it doesn’t feel like a conclusion. Indeed my neighbour at the concert turned to me and said “to be continued” as, in the words of Daniel Jones, we were “left at the end with the E flat chord alone, played softly by flutes and muted horns”. Still, for all my slight unease about this last movement, I was very glad to have the chance to hear the work – and hope that more of Jones’s music will receive new performances.

Julian Lloyd Webber joined the orchestra and conductor Owain Arwel Hughes for the Elgar Cello Concerto. Lloyd Webber’s recording of the concerto with Yehudi Menuhin has rightly been highly praised, but on this particular occasion the reading that he and Arwel Hughes produced was a little less than absolutely compelling. Though it would be excessive to say that soloist and conductor were at odds, it was noticeable that Hughes had the orchestra playing with rather more attack and outspoken passion than Lloyd Webber invested in the solo part. Lloyd Webber’s playing worked more by understatement than by the grand gesture and the result was than on occasions, at least from where I was sitting, the cello was somewhat submerged by the weight of orchestral sound. Still, especially in the second movement, there were some lovely moments of stillness and poise in Lloyd Webber’s playing and some passages of great tonal beauty. This was a good, rather than an outstanding performance of the concerto.

‘Outstanding’ was, however, quite definitely the word that the performance which closed the concert demanded – a powerful, utterly persuasive reading of Vaughan Williams’ second symphony which entirely made the case for the composer’s own claim (made in a programme note of 1925) that the work “is in no sense descriptive, and though the introduction of the ‘Westminster Chimes’ in the first movement, the slight reminiscence of the ‘Lavender cry’ in the slow movement, and the very faint suggestion of mouth organs and mechanical pianos in the Scherzo give it a tinge of ‘local colour’, yet it is intended to be listened to as ‘absolute’ music. Hearers may, if they like, localise the various themes and movements, but it is hoped that this is not a necessary part of the music’. Certainly I have never before found myself so little interested in matters of ‘local colour’ and so much absorbed by dimensions of the music far transcending any kind of parochial ‘representation’. The slow introduction of the first movement was beautiful in its poise and its sense of containing the silent seeds of growth and life. Owain Arwel Hughes managed the transition to the allegro proper with complete persuasiveness and a sense of the naturalness of the progression and of the plenitude of thematic ideas that ensues. The strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales were as fine as I have ever heard them here, with a fullness of tone that yet had no fat on it. The ragtime rhythms were particularly delightful, irresistibly dancing, and the woodwinds later contributed some fine work; the whole movement had a seriousness (but not a solemnity) of purpose that was entirely winning. The slow movement had an encompassing serenity, the slowness of pace never at risk of losing its grip on the audience; the work of solo cor anglais and viola was exquisite and the surges of orchestral sound made full sense of a larger design that refused mere pictorialism. In the third movement the evocation of night and vivacity was alike compelling, and the way in which Owain Arwel Hughes judged the balance of the orchestral sections was masterly, as his the control of dynamic contrasts. The finale was played as well as I can remember ever hearing it. The interplay of mood and movement, of the despairing and of the sombre, the slow march and the rustling figures in the upper strings, moments of ferocity and moments of startling quietness – there is God’s plenty in this movement and this was a performance which did full justice to it. Vaughan Williams himself conducted this symphony at the Swansea Festival in 1948; it is hard to believe that he could have led a performance much better than this one. In the year of his 70th birthday, Owain Arwel Hughes led as fine a performance as I have heard from in recent years. There was, I suspect, more than mere politeness implied when the orchestra applauded him at the end.

Glyn Pursglove