United Kingdom Stravinsky, Csanyi-Wills, Vaughan Williams, Copland: Lucy Simmonds (cello), Robin Stowell (violin), Welsh Sinfonia / Mark Eager (conductor), Dora Stoutker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 9.11.2013 (PCG)
Stravinsky – Dumbarton Oaks Concerto
Csanyi-Wills – The last letter: L’Innunziata
Vaughan Williams – The lark ascending
Copland – Appalachian spring
The two major points of interest in this programme were the two world premières of pieces by Michael Csanyi-Wills, recently appointed as composer in residence to the Welsh Sinfonia. I would like to express my thanks to the composer who sent me copies of the scores in advance, and in fact the playing seemed to be everything that could be desired. The last letter originated as a song (which can be heard performed by soprano and piano on the composer’s website http://www.michaelcsanyi-wills.co.uk/composer) but was here given in an arrangement for cello and chamber orchestra. The song is a setting of a letter written by the composer’s grandmother Gabriella Csanyi just before she disappeared from the streets of Budapest during the Holocaust. The words of the letter, a touchingly practical note which nevertheless hides lacerating sadness, were printed in the programme and can be read on the online performance of the song. As a purely orchestral piece it worked superbly, bruising the sensibilities and rising to an emotionally charged climax. The solo line, in its original soprano key, was played beautifully by Lucy Simmonds stepping forward from the ranks of the orchestral cellos. I would hope that a recording of the work could be made available, as I would dearly love to hear it again.
By comparison the ‘tango suite’ L’Innunziata was a far lighter piece, exploiting the resources of the string orchestra in a commendably idiomatic evocation of tango style which inevitably owed much to the model of Piazolla but was none the less effective for all that. The strings clearly enjoyed themselves, swooping around their glissandos with great panache and bringing a touchingly reserved quality to the slower central movement. Like The last letter this is highly approachable and enjoyable music which deserves to be heard again; it is an arrangement of a piece originally written for the Fugata Quintet, in which form it sounds more raunchy, but it fits the string orchestra like a glove.
Before the two world premières we had a performance of Stravinsky’s gawky Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in its original scoring for chamber ensemble. The conductor in his programme note spoke of his fascination with Stravinsky, but it has to be said that this was only intermittently conveyed in this performance. Much of the blame must be laid at the door of the composer, who manages to make even passages in thirds and sixths sound unconventional in this neo-classical score; and his not infrequent demands for unison between two or three string players puts extreme demands on the tuning of the instrumentalists (conductors dealing with other works that make similar demands, such as the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, frequently amend the score to reduce the two players to one). Nor is the balance between wind and strings satisfactory with a smaller body of the latter. Similar problems are frequently evident in other chamber concertos and symphonies, such as Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 1 which led Schoenberg himself to rearrange the work for a larger orchestra. Dumbarton Oaks I fear is one of those works that really comes off better with more players especially on the string lines.
After the interval Robin Stowell, the leader of the Welsh Sinfonia, played the Vaughan Williams classic The lark ascending. There has been an increasing tendency in recent years to treat this piece as a pastoral rumination, often extending its duration uncomfortably; but Mark Eager pushed the pace along with the sometimes unfortunate result that the composer’s 6/8 rhythms became ‘folksy’ in a rather bouncy way and missed the sense of rapture that also lies within the score. Robin Stowell’s tuning in the more stratospheric passages of the opening cadenza was also suspect, although he cannot have been helped by having his concentration disturbed by quite a few members of the audience trailing back into the auditorium after the interval had finished but after the music had started. However he was fully master of the more intricate passages, and his double stopping in the middle section – which can sound scraunchy in other hands – was beautifully poised. Mark Eager employed Vaughan Williams’s own alternative scoring for chamber orchestra (although the original orchestra is not large) and it has to be said that the differences between the two versions were hardly noticeable. There was plenty of body in the string sound, aided by the sympathetic acoustic of the Dora Stoutzker Hall.
The concert concluded with the suite from Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and here (unlike the Stravinsky) the use of the original chamber version of the score for thirteen players paid real dividends. Copland’s later full orchestration is of course marvellously conceived, but the richer textures somehow lack the precision and clarity of the original. And when it is as well played as it was here, with an outstanding contribution from Darius Gray on clarinet launching the Shaker hymn tune, one positively prefers Copland’s original. Again the sound in the hall was warm and full-blooded, and the players brought plenty of bounce to the more vigorous passages.
Paul Corfield Godfrey