Youth and Dance Prominent at Cardiff Music Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Mozart: Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Jeff Howard (piano), Cardiff Sinfonietta, Jonathan Mann (conductor), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 5.10.2012 (GPu)

Schubert: Symphony No. 5
Schubert: Lieder
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17
Mozart: Exsultate Jubilate

This concert was part of the second Cardiff Music Festival, a week of varied events including ‘A Night at the Musicals’, several recitals by young musicians and singers, and an evening of big band classics. The Festival’s artistic director, David Mahoney (who sings with Only Men Aloud) sees it in terms of three main objectives: ‘to bring musical excellence to Wales’ capital city, to promote young artists at the beginning of their careers, and to raise money for charitable causes through musical performance’. I can’t comment on how the money raising went on this particular but youth and musical excellence were certainly in evidence.

The Cardiff Sinfonietta is made up of young Welsh musicians and students from a number of other conservatoires around the UK; the standard is high and the ensemble work impressive. The Sinfonietta has already worked with Benjamin Grosvenor and Dennis O’Neill, amongst others, and has performed (very decently) a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies. The orchestra’s young conductor, Cardiff-based Jonathan Mann already has plenty of experience under his belt, having worked as an assistant to Yan Pascal Tortelier, Thierry Fischer and others and having conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, written in the autumn of 1816 when the composer had yet to reach his twentieth birthday, has (a rapidly maturing) youthfulness about it, to which Mann and his orchestra responded with intelligence and assurance. Everywhere informed by the examples of Haydn and Mozart, this delightful work never strays very far from the dance and in many respects retains a strong sense of the intimacies of chamber music. It got a performance full of rhythmic verve and with an appropriate sense of scale. The whole has the very Schubertian mix of wit and sunny good spirits, with enough elaboration of harmony and melody to fascinate but not so much as to conceal the essential simplicity of its charm and (already) its nostalgic dimensions. The opening allegro was played with rhythmic crispness and, in the second subject, with a fair degree of lyrical elegance. The ensuing andante had a dignity that avoided any hint of pomposity and some fine playing from the strings. The minuet of the third movement, in G minor, danced persuasively and the trio (in the major) was very effectively contrasted. The last movement’s opening was invested with youthful vivacity and, in the marvellous acoustic of the Dora Stoutzker Hall, the clarity of texture achieved by orchestra and conductor was a delight.

My last sighting of Elin Manahan Thomas was on TV – singing Handel’s ‘Eternal Source of Light Divine’ at the opening ceremony of the London Paralympics. Back in her native South Wales the context was rather more intimate, the forces involved somewhat less massive. She and pianist Jeff Howard followed the symphony with a set of five songs by Schubert: “Du bist die Ruh’”, “Heidenröslein”, “Nacht und Träume”, “Lachen und Weinen” and the third of Ellen’s songs (‘Ave Maria’) from the 1825 songs Schubert on texts translated from Scott’s Lady of the Lake. Howard is an experienced and accomplished accompanist, always astutely supportive of the singers he works with (and understandably popular with those singers); his work here was characteristically excellent, especially in “Nacht und Träume”, his playing of the hushed, lulling semiquavers particularly fine. Thomas is a singer whose performances seem always to begin, as it were, in a respect for, and an understanding of, the words of what she sings. This was nowhere more apparent than in “Lachen und Weinen”, in which from Rückert’s words and Schubert’s music Thomas produced an instantaneous character, a plausible ‘personality’ with a coherent emotional statement to make. “Heidenröslein” had a real narrative arc, from the excitement of “Sah ein Knab ein Röslein stehn” to the rose’s unavailing cries of pain, unavailing since “must es eben leiden”. “Nacht und Träume” was sung with beautiful limpid serenity and Ellen’s song (the echt Schubert Ave Maria) was full of unfussy variety of tone and dynamics.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G, K453, dates from the period when he was enjoying particular success in Vienna, being completed in April 1784. Like the Schubert symphony with which the concert had opened, this concerto has about it something of the nature of chamber music on a slightly larger scale. This, memorably, was the concerto of which Mozart’s pet starling could almost sing the theme of the last movement! Jeff Howard gave a rather studied account of the work; this was a highly competent performance but not one which ever quite took flight, though it came close to doing so in the last movement. There was much to enjoy both in Howard’s playing and in the work of the orchestra, but the magic of the work just eluded both – the naturalness of Mozart’s starling was perhaps the missing factor!

Elin Manahan Thomas returned to bring the concert to an end with an outstanding performance of the Exsultate Jubilate. Ezra Pound once observed that “music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance” – no danger of such atrophy here. The opening and closing allegros are sacred dance and joy of the purest kind (the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, for whom it was originally written, for performance in the Theatine Church in Milan, clearly had a vocal agility that the young Mozart found inspiring). Elin Manahan Thomas, who clearly loves this work and communicates that love in performance, is certainly not lacking in the necessary agility of voice and this was a dazzling performance. But, even here, the vocal fireworks were underpinned by a respect for the text, her phrasing never entirely forgetting issues of verbal meaning. In this, another youthful work (having been written when Mozart was in his teens) there is an exuberance of invention, alike in the variations of ‘Tu virginum corona’ and the gloriously joyful ritornello of the finale, that both articulates and inspires joy – especially when sung as well as this. Any listener who didn’t leave with a spring in his or her step (holy or otherwise) can only be pitied.

Glyn Pursglove