Lithuanian Music Comes to Wales

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Kutavicius, Martinaitis, Bartulis, Tamulionis, Metcalf: Onute Švabauskaitè (cello), St Christopher Chamber Orchestra / Donatas Katkus (conductor), Vale of Glamorgan Festival, All Saint’s Church, Penarth, Cardiff. 11.5.2013 (PCG)

Bronius Kutavicius: Northern Gates (from Gates of Jerusalem)
Algiradas Martinaitis: Serenade for Mistress Europe
Vidmantas Bartulis: Bolero—Pavane Lacrimae
Jonas Tamulionis: Toccata Diavolesca
John Metcalf: Dances from Forgotten Pieces

This concert, mainly of Lithuanian music, got off to a rather dispiriting start with the twenty-minute Northern Gates by Bronius Katavicius (born 1932). The opening resembled nothing so much as the string ensemble tuning up with a percussion accompaniment of bass drum and chains, which we were advised was intended to resemble the ritual dances of Yakut shamans. After a while we were introduced to “Karelian incantations of the ling fish,” whatever they might be, where the open chords of the opening clotted and the orchestra were asked to vocalise – always a perilous procedure, even when executed as well as it was here. A move into quarter-tone writing, with the players continuing to vocalise at normal concert pitch, left a rather queasy feeling that the sense of proper tuning had been mislaid somewhere. The introduction of what sounded like electronic effects towards the end did not serve to clarify matters. We were told that the work, which won the Lithuanian National Arts and Culture Prize in 1995, consisted of four pieces for various combinations of instruments, but I fear I was not encouraged to explore further.

Serenade for Mistress Europe by Algirdas Martinaitis (born 1950) was more readily approachable, although again quarter-tones were in evidence. It was described by the composer as “a mosaic of recognisable quotations from [the] musical past” and it certainly opened with plenty of character with a flavour of Tristan and something else. High discords in the strings were rather startling, clearly intended but sounding like a disastrous mistake, and what followed was sometimes unsettlingly disjointed. There were passages, like a pizzicato waltz accompaniment, that seemed about to lead somewhere but were then abruptly truncated. The composer’s note contained a warning that “this piece may be really harmful in cases of severe ‘thirds’ intolerance,” but the warning was not really needed; one was reminded of those products which say “may contain nuts” but the traces are so scanty that the warning is not really warranted. In both the works included in the first half one noted a certain unwillingness to engage closely with string techniques – there were hardly any passages of tremolo, glissando or sul ponticello, for example – and one lamented the lack of variety in the tone that resulted.

The pieces in the second half made up for this, and all were generally more idiomatically scored. The oddly titled BoleroPavane Lacrimae by Vidmantis Bartulis (no date of birth given) suggested reminiscences of Ravel, but in the event it sounded more like a baroque cello concerto with modern touches, a very touching piece even when the excited playing of the orchestra threatened to overwhelm Onute Švabauskaitè’s heartfelt delivery of the melodic material. But the sense of purposeful progress was never lost, or threatened to degenerate into pastiche. The immediate appeal of the closing section should not be undervalued; its emotional magnetism was apparent.

The Toccata Diavolesca by Jonas Tamuilonis (born 1949) was by far the shortest piece on the programme – a mere four minutes – but the programme informed us that it is one of the “most frequently performed Lithuanian orchestral pieces of the past two decades.” It is a real tour de force, somewhat like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the bumble bee on acid with a real sting to the writing. It was performed, like all the pieces on the programme, superbly by the players, who threw themselves with vigour into everything that was demanded of them.

The programme closed with Dances from Forgotten Places by John Metcalf (born 1946), consisting of five quick dances and one slow one and constructed as a set of variations. Appreciation was not helped by the Varèse-like intervention of a police siren from outside the church, but the Healing Dance was very beautiful indeed even if the melody did continually threaten to break into the ‘big theme’ which Prokofiev wrote for Ivan the Terrible and then imported into Kutuzov’s aria in War and Peace. One listened hopefully for the return of this lovely material, but alas we listened in vain even though the following movements were varied enough to lead to a full-bodied and satisfactory conclusion. The orchestra, doubtless much less familiar with this music than with the Lithuanian pieces that had preceded it, nevertheless gave the score a superb performance.


Paul Corfield Godfrey