Quirky Cartoons Accompany Orchestrapaedia Premiere

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mathias, Wagner, Ibert, Roxanna Panufnik, Beethoven:Emma Halnan (flute), Welsh Sinfonia, Mark Eager (conductor). Doris Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 18.4.2013 (PCG)

Mathias: Intrada, Op.54
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Ibert: Flute Concerto in D
Roxanna Panufnik: Orchestrapaedia (world première)
Beethoven: Symphony No 8 in F, Op.93

Firstly may I observe that this was the best concert I have ever heard given by the Welsh Sinfonia, whose playing in this programme amply justified their claim to be the first fully professional chamber orchestra operating in the Principality. In his notes Mark Eager observed that this was a “rather self-indulgent programme,” reflecting his own interests – but the response from the players fully justified his selection of some very disparate items.

It must however be admitted that William Mathias’s Intrada is far from being one of his most impressive pieces. Mathias was a great personality, with a sympathy for the work of other composers, which is alas rather a rarity among the fraternity; but his sympathy could sometimes extend to a readiness to pay tangible tribute in music that imitated the work of those with whom he felt that sympathy. In the case of Intrada the influence of Michael Tippett is palpable – although less so than in Mathias’ opera The Servants (on which he was working at the time) where the influences tipped over into outright imitation. (Mathias rather charmingly admitted to me that he “would do better next time,” but unfortunately he never had the opportunity.) The music of Intrada contrasts fast rhythmic patterns with slower contrasting phrases in a rather mechanical manner, although the central section led off by the oboe has more emotional weight. But despite excellent playing one felt that the shades of The Midsummer Marriage were always hovering in the very near background.

Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll was written as a purely private piece for chamber performance to celebrate his wife’s birthday and the birth of their son, and it was a cause for some grief when financial necessity forced him to publish the work at a later date. The original scoring was for solo strings only with a small body of wind players, but here we were given Wagner’s authorised version with a fuller strength of strings. This is right for concert performance – the weight of the scoring demands a bigger sound in the climaxes – but Mark Eager preserved Wagner’s original writing for solo string players in the opening bars (Neville Marriner was I believe the first to do this in a recording in the 1970s) and this maintains the intimate feel of music that was originally conceived for string quartet. Indeed the refulgent sound of the orchestra in the bigger passages rather left the trumpet in his brief contribution smothered by the phrases around him; it was nice to have the phrase subsumed into the texture rather than jutting out uncomfortably, but it did carry self-effacement a degree too far.

Ibert’s Flute Concerto, superbly played by the nineteen-year-old Emma Halnan, could well provide ammunition for those who (like Boulez) regard the work of the composer as so much empty froth. In the first movement, the second subject hits a deeper vein but the clothes borrowed from Ravel lack that master’s sheer melodic memorability. In the slow movement Halnan’s beautifully sustained lines were balm to the ears even in the most stratospheric passages. The acrobatics of the finale however failed to disguise the essential emptiness of the music, with a central section that sounded as if it had wandered in from one of the more exotic passages in Ibert’s picture-postcard Escales. The brief passage in fluttertongue in the cadenza was a slightly startling homage to more modern techniques, but the very brief coda which followed failed to bring the work to a really satisfactory conclusion. Nonetheless the playing throughout was excellent, lively and responsive, and Halnan received a well-deserved ovation.

After the interval we were given a world première in the shape of Roxanna Panufnik’s Orchestrapaedia, a deliberate attempt to mirror Britten’s Young person’s guide to the orchestra for chamber orchestral forces. Actually there were also overtones of Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica (with its portrait of life in the composer’s household) because the work has a programme attached which purported to depict a day in the life of a chamber orchestra – a rather raunchier day than one suspects would be strictly accurate. The music, like Britten’s, is a set of variations, here on the Welsh folksong Dros yr Afon, with characteristic variations for each individual instrument; at one point in the finale, a roistering dance section, the theme took on hints of Holst’s Bring us in good ale. The clarinet variation, with the big brassy swing-band climaxes which were supposed to represent the husband being woken up by his wife, would be regarded as grounds for divorce in some circles, and would certainly lead to irate appearances on daytime reality TV shows. The programme was illustrated with projected cartoons by the composer’s brother Jem Panufnik, enjoyable in themselves and with a quirky humour that recalled Hoffnung. Nevertheless one suspects that the future of the work may be as a purely orchestral set of variations – a Variations and Fugue on a theme of Purcell rather than a Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – and as such it would be an enjoyable concert piece in its own right.

Finally we were given a superb performance of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, not a ‘little symphony’ as it is sometimes disparagingly described but here a full-bodied work; and the use of a chamber orchestra did not, as can so often be the case, mean etiolated violin tone which fails to penetrate the wind sound and make its important thematic contributions felt. The wind playing was characterful, and the strings had plenty of verve and assurance of attack. One’s only reservations might concern the very fast tempo which Eager adopted for the finale; this obviously derives from Beethoven’s metronome marking, but at this speed it is simply impossible for any string body to clearly articulate their fast passages with sufficient force to make themselves heard over the jabbing and sustained wind chords which punctuate the music. A very little more moderation might pay considerable dividends.

The second half of the programme is being repeated by these same forces on 7 July at Cheltenham Town Hall as part of the Cheltenham Festival, and audiences there are in for a real treat.

Paul Corfield Godfrey