Fitkin Finale for Vale of Glamorgan Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Narboni, Metcalf, Pécou, Bryars, Fitkin: Percussion Claviers de Lyon, All Saints Church, Penarth, 17.5.2013 (PCG)

François Narboni: Rigodon
John Metcalf: Two Palindromes
Thierry Pécou: L’arbre aux fleurs
Gavin Bryars: At Portage and Main
Graham Fitkin: Partially screaming

Fitkin, Reich, Pärt, Maxwell Davies: Ruth Wall (harp), Norwegian Church, Cardiff Bay, 18.5.2013 (PCG)

Fitkin : Close hold: Scent: Lost: Y gog Lwydlas [folksong arrangement]

Steve Reich: Piano Phase

Arvo Pärt: Pari Intervallo

Peter Maxwell Davies: Farewell to Stromness

Fitkin, Janulyté: Rafael Wallfisch (cello), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Garry Walker (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 18.5.2013 (PCG)

Fitkin: Cello Concerto: Mindset

Justé Janulyté: Elongation of Nights

The final three concerts in this year’s Vale of Glamorgan focused on the music of Graham Fitkin, presenting no fewer than seven of his works, of which three were either receiving their very first performance or their first UK performance in concert. At the first of these events, given by the remarkable players of the Percussion Claviers de Lyon, we heard the world première of Partially screaming, only completed earlier this year, which concluded the concert.

The evening had begun with Rigodon by François Narboni (born 1963) which was “an attempt to imagine a sort of Debussy touch for keyboard percussion” built round the chords of C minor and A major. The virtuosity of the players, managing multiple instruments with different sticks in each hand, was astounding and amazingly well co-ordinated with plenty of dynamic light and shade. There was also an element of stereophonic interplay between instruments on the extreme left and right of the stage, and the work made a dramatic start to the programme. The arrangement by Gérard Lecointe of John Metcalf’s Two Palindromes was not so obviously designed for percussion ensemble, eschewing directional effects in favour of unison passages, but the sound blended nicely in the church acoustic.

L’arbre aux fleurs by Thierry Pécou (born 1965) set out to imitate the sounds of a Mexican mariachi band, with plenty of rhythmic life and pulse; and novel effects, such as the use of bamboo sticks on the xylorimba, tickled the ear. There was plenty of variety of texture and sound, including what sounded like a set of variations on Frère Jacques. The second movement was more disjointed as passages passed from player to player, but slowly built up a head of steam in a superbly controlled accelerando towards a frenetic finale with piled-up polytonal chords of massive effect, and the players moving around from instrument to instrument until to the amusement (and amazement) of the audience all five ended bunched up cosily together, playing on the same xylorimba with different sticks.

After the interval we heard Gavin Bryars’s At Portage and Main, commissioned by this ensemble in 2009 and recorded by them. This opened with a cross-section of metallic sounds to surprisingly varied effect, into which the tuned percussion slowly crept like a stalking cat. The music achieved a beautiful melodic profile with hypnotic results; this is a lovely piece, where the technique of the superb players did not draw attention to themselves to spoil the atmosphere. After this it was a little unfortunate that Graham Fitkin’s Partially screaming sounded so aggressively percussive. (It might have been better to place the Bryars before the interval). It was very effectively rhythmic, but immediately after the preceding work it sounded shallow, even though its obsessive drive was full of zest. As one became accustomed to the sound it built up a good sense of excitement, but it was ultimately relentless especially when three side drums set up a battery of rhythms against each other. The players were clearly enjoying themselves as the music got ever more frenetic.

Between the two large-scale concerts there was a lunchtime recital by harpist Ruth Wall, playing three different Celtic harps. The programme included a Welsh folksong arrangement by Fitkin as well as three works written specifically for Wall, of which the piece for wire-strung Gaelic harp was particularly beautiful with the composer triumphantly overcoming the problems of writing for a diatonically tuned instrument which has no facility for changing key. Arvo Pärt’s Pari intervallo, written for organ, worked well in the arrangement by Ruth Wall herself, as did Peter Maxwell Davies’s Farewell to Stromness which would probably sound beautiful on any instrument. Incidentally the programme biography of the latter composer referred to only eight of his symphonies (we had a ninth last year) and in a list of his operas omitted any mention of The Lighthouse or Resurrection. Even Steve Reich’s insistently minimalist Piano phase did not outstay its welcome in Wall’s hypnotic performance, although it did provoke one member of the audience to walk out.

In the final concert of the Festival there were two further works by Fitkin. The Cello Concerto had been commissioned by the BBC Proms in 2011 and played there by Yo-Yo Ma; here Rafael Wallfisch took over the solo role. The music began with long-breathed sustained notes against which the orchestra played gently bruising chords which slowly encouraged the soloist to bring forth more impassioned lines; slowly a full melody emerged over a gently rocking accompaniment, and the music gathered pace while remaining lyrical in feeling, before a return to the opening material. Two harps launched a scherzo which followed without a break, and over which the original themes were developed with greater energy, Here the usual problems of audibility of the solo cello in an orchestral score were not overcome – Wallfisch could be seen to be working feverishly at times, but was effectively drowned out by the brass even where I was seated quite close to and directly in front of the soloist. The scherzo culminated in a series of piled-up cataclysmic chords in the style of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony before the cello restored peace over a further series of rocking chords. The music then resumed even more frenetically and built to an exciting climax which almost seemed to invite premature applause – but after a pause the opening material returned to restore calm, with the cello solo now clearly echoing the yearning opening phrase of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in an extended and passionate peroration before the music finally faded into silence. In a recording the problems of balance between soloist and orchestra would not have been so obvious.

Mindset was originally commissioned as a ballet score for Covent Garden in 2010, and had a decidedly neo-baroque feeling at the start. Indeed the score opened like a train gathering speed, and the music stood up well here even without the visual element of the stage. After some five minutes of this driving pulse there was a sudden calm with occasional flurries of movement which almost reminded one of passages in the scherzo of the Moeran Symphony (or should we call it Moeran’s First Symphony now that Martin Yates has edited the Second for performance?) where sustained horn chords set off tangential themes. Finally the forward momentum was renewed, but now more reminiscent of a railway crash or some other disaster. This was Fitkin in full driving mode, and in the end without the stage action this section simply went on too long. A sudden piccolo solo introduced a series of woodwind passages, but the repeated piccolo phrase became somewhat too insistently wearing before the agitated string figures returned – perhaps a more detailed programme note might have been of assistance here. A slow interlude consisting of piled-up string chords was rather lacking in motivic interest – Fitkin shows a welcome willingness to produce recognisable fast themes, but not slower ones – and again the spirit of Mahler’s Tenth was apparent as the climax approached. We then returned to a jogging set of fast figurations where the Moeran-like horn chords again made their presence felt, and a triumphantly upbeat final section which bid fair to outdo Shostakovich, Prokofiev or Ives for sheer volume. In the small and resonant Hoddinott Hall the result approached (and passed) the threshold of pain, but Garry Walker should note that his vocal encouragements to the players were nevertheless audible to the audience from where I was seated in the fifth row.

The highlight of this final concert was however Elongation of nights by Justé Janulyté (born 1982), one of the pieces from the Festival’s theme this year of focusing on the work of Lithuanian composers. Here the massive orchestra required for the Fitkin works was fined down to twenty-one solo string players – a mere whisper of sound, a sussuration of open fifths. In her programme note the composer drew attention to parallels with Morton Feldman, and these were entirely accurate even though the sense of rapt stillness also showed the influence of Pärt and Rautavaara. Apart from a gradual but insistent increase in volume, nothing much happened; but it happened enchantingly and cast a spell over the listener. One must congratulate Festival director John Metcalf for his uncanny ability to select scores by unknown or neglected composers of any nation which hold the attention of an audience; it is a testimony to his construction of interesting programmes that the Hoddinott Hall was nearly full for this concert, and every concert which I have attended has included at least one work that was a total revelation.

Paul Corfield Godfrey