Rare Bits From Wales

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Barber, Pierné, Daniel Jones, Finzi, Leroy Anderson: Catrin Finch (harp)*, Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano)+, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Gary Walker (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 7.12.2012 (PCG)

Barber: Die Natali
Pierné: Concert piece for harp and orchestra*
Daniel Jones: Five pieces for orchestra
Finzi: Dies Natalis+
Leroy Anderson: Christmas Festival

Not all the works in this Seasonal Concert were specifically Christmas pieces, but we began and ended with two compilations of traditional Christmas carols. Actually Barber’s Die natali might be regarded as a light-hearted potpourri, but nothing by Barber is ever devoid of serious intent. After an opening statement of Veni veni Emmanuel (which returns at the end) the piece develops into a set of variations on Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen which serve to demonstrate Barber’s feeling for orchestral colour as exhibited in his Essays for orchestra. There are plenty of intriguing instrumental effects as well as romantic ardour, and this is a work that deserves to be heard more often.

The Pierné Concertstück (as it was billed in the programme – why the German title?) is not a conspicuously seasonal piece. Unlike contemporary works for harp by Debusy and Ravel, it utilises a full symphony orchestra; but the skill of Pierné’s writing, and Catrin Finch’s playing, meant that the delicate sound of the harp was never overpowered. In this early work from 1903 there are none of the more experimental effects found in Pierné’s later Masque of the Red Death (also featuring harp). It is delightful to hear it; if Pierné had called it a concerto it would probably be more popular.

The Daniel Jones Five pieces, written in 1939, were here receiving their first performance since their première in 1951, as a tribute to the composer’s centenary – he was born on 7 December 1912. The oddly proportioned movements (some much longer than others) were written in the aftermath of Jones’s travels in Europe in the period immediately before the Second World War, but the continental influences are less obvious than the composer’s sense of drama and youthful brio, which in many ways anticipate the sort of music he was to write in his later symphonies. The fourth piece, by far the longest, seemed to suggest a drunken ramble with Dylan Thomas around Swansea with its scabrous trombone glissandi and sudden lurches from one theme to another. Otherwise the music was an excellent demonstration of the direction in which Welsh music was heading before the advent of serialism. The audience gave the fourth movement a premature round of applause, and one hopes that it will not be another sixty years before we hear these pieces again.

In the Intrada to Finzi’s Dies natalis Gary Walker emphasised the dynamic contrasts in the music, also adjusting tempos to the words they would later accompany in the Rhapsody in a manner of which Finzi would have approved. The slightly reduced body of strings still had plenty of tone, and even at times threatened to overpower Elin Manahan Thomas’s middle register. She sang with suitably innocent tones, but the supplied texts were necessary despite her evident concern for clarity of diction. Her singing of “The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reap’d nor was ever sown” chilled the blood; but later lines such as “I felt a vigor in my Sense that was all Spirit” needed more rhythmic impulse and projection. She also indulged rather too often in a habit of attacking high notes piano and then making a crescendo; sometimes these passages demanded more bite.

Leroy Anderson’s music, often pejoratively spurned as irretrievably trivial, in fact often displays considerably subtlety of touch. But Christmas Festival is an obviously-scored anthology of carols clearly designed with a strong eye to the commercial market and maximum audibility through the crackle of shellac record surfaces. The repeated bell chimes during Silent night came round far too mechanically and predictably. As music based on traditional carols it is clearly far below the level of inspiration of the Barber Die natali – or, for that matter, Hely-Hutchison’s Carol Symphony – but it brought the concert to an upbeat conclusion. Apparently the work also exists in a shorter version – we were given it at full length – but I must admit I don’t really care if I never hear it again. To bring balm to our ears we had brief encore in the shape of John Rutter’s Clare Benediction, performed by Elin Manahan Thomas and Catrin Finch as a soprano and harp solo.

The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 and can be heard on the BBC i-player for the next seven days. The Barber, Pierné and Daniel Jones are all unfamiliar (or unknown) pieces worth a listen. The balance between soloists and orchestra sounds better in the broadcast sound than it was in the hall itself, although in the live acoustic the strings had more body and resonance.

Paul Corfield Godfrey