Sterling Performance by Welsh Sinfonia of Csányi-Wills’ New Work

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Purcell, Bartók, Csányi-Wills, Britten, Mendlessohn: Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Angus West (horn), Welsh Sinfonia / Mark Eager (conductor), Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 26.1.2013 (PCG)

Bartók: Divertimento
Csányi-Wills: On the idle hill of summer
Britten: Serenade for tenor, horn and strings
Mendelssohn: Spring Symphony No 1

The central point of this concert was the first performance of Michael Csányi-Wills’s On the idle hill of summer, a setting of Housman written for the same combination of forces as Britten’s Serenade. It was a beautiful piece. I was able to see a copy of the score in advance, and anticipated something much more astringent than we heard; there was a beautiful impressionist shimmer to the string writing, and the horn echoing the voice produced some truly emotional moments. If there can be any criticism it may only be that the writing is sometimes a little over-busy. Csányi-Wills’ approach to Housman is more reminiscent of Vaughan Williams in On Wenlock Edge than, say, Butterworth – with the result that Nicholas Mulroy, nicely plangent in its upper register, was somewhat overpowered in his lower reaches. It might have been useful, too, for the audience to have been supplied with a copy of the words (omitted from the programme), although Mulroy’s diction was generally excellent. Subsequent comparison with Csányi-Wills’ other Housman settings, in particular his orchestral setting of White under the moon, demonstrated that a greater degree of simplicity in the writing might have yielded greater dividends. But this is not to detract from a very beautiful work, which demonstrated convincingly that the genius of Housman still has the ability to inspire a new generation of composers – although Housman himself, who notoriously objected strenuously to the popularity of his verse for musical setting, might not necessarily have welcomed this.

The programme opened with Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony. Ironically this piece, a baroque work par excellence, would have benefited from a larger body of strings; but, aided by the resonant acoustic of the hall, the Welsh Sinfonia brought out the harmonies nicely. This piece could rival Pachelbel’s Canon in popularity, if some wool advertising company could be persuaded to adopt it.

Bartók’s Divertimento, on the other hand, is never likely to achieve ‘pop’ status; but it is one of Bartók’s lighter works, even if it lacks the surface glitter of the Concerto for orchestra or the Music for strings, percussion and celesta. The haunted and spectral slow central movement had a purposeful tread, against which the etiolated threads of melody drifted very movingly with vibrato pared back to the minimum. This made the sudden access of normal tone as the music grew more impassioned very striking. Robin Stowell was excellent in his mini-concerto in the last movement.

In the Britten Serenade Angus West used two horns, playing the opening and closing movements on a natural horn which unfortunately was treacherous in the opening phrases. (He told me after the performance that he had deliberately used two different instruments in order to get the leaner sound of the natural horn to mirror Denis Brain’s instrument for which the work was originally written, a commendably conscientious idea.) Nicholas Mulroy’s diction was again excellently clear, and he shaded the meanings with confidence and delicacy. At the beginning of the Lyke-wake dirge he floated his high lines beautifully (although at the climax a lack of sheer strength became apparent), and he made much of the tricky vocal writing in the Ben Jonson setting. At the end the offstage horn could perhaps have been more effectively distanced – a ghostly echo would have been even better than the rather more ‘present’ sound we heard here, visibly played from the back above the stage.

The brief concluding Mendelssohn String Symphony, written when the composer was at the advanced age of twelve, made for a nice bit of froth to end the evening, although the slow movement revealed some lack of tonal blend in exposed passages.

I look forward to hearing more of the work of Michael Csányi-Wills; there are quite a number of performances available on his website at The spoken introductions by Mark Eager, a usual feature of Welsh Sinfonia concerts, blended information with amusement, and he achieved some sterling performances from his players.

Paul Corfield Godfrey