United Kingdom Adams, Morfydd Owen, Vaughan Williams, Barber, Pärt, Elgar: Welsh Sinfonia, members of National Youth Orchestra of Wales, Mark Eager (conductor). Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff. 7.12.2013 (PCG)
Adams – Shaker Loops: 1st movement
Morfydd Owen – Threnody for the passing of Branwen
Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis
Barber – Adagio for strings
Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on Greensleeves
Pärt – Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
Elgar – Introduction and Allegro
This concert doubled the strength of the usual Welsh Sinfonia complement of strings with the addition of players from the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, and in the resonant acoustic of Llandaff Cathedral it sounded a sizeable body indeed. In memory of the recent death of Nelson Mandela, the Morfydd Owen Threnody of 1916 was substituted for the last three movements of Adams’s Shaker Loops. I am quite certain that President Mandela would never have heard of either Morfydd Owen or her Threnody, but as a memorial lament the piece transpired to be at least the equal of Elgar’s Elegy or Walford Davies’s Solemn melody. Were it not for the fact that the composer died at the age of 26, this work would surely have entered the repertory; but it remains almost totally unknown, although it was performed by the BBC last year, and it was not published until 1991. With the growing interest in the output of the Welsh composer it deserves a recording. (Two performances by the North Wales Camerata in Bangor and Wrexham are scheduled for next January). As it was the piece came as balm after the busy Adams movement, with the strings buzzing busily around like a swarm of demented hornets (and some decidedly uneasy high harmonics towards the end which weren’t quite together).
Even better however was the sound in the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, a piece designed to be heard in a cathedral and written for the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1910. In the score the composer presents real problems for his ‘second orchestra’, a single desk of strings specified to be placed at a distance behind the ‘first orchestra’ – and with just two players to a part in the distant body, difficulties of tuning are exacerbated. Here the second orchestra were placed at the far end of the choir, although they could to advantage have been still further distanced; but their tuning was impeccable and the comings and goings of the sound were conveyed far better than in the recent performance by the Welsh National Opera Orchestra in St David’s Hall, where the second orchestra was merely placed behind the first on the same stage. However the cathedral acoustic tended to blur internal lines in places, and the surging string counterpoints to the radiant second statement of the Tallis theme could have been more clearly defined.
After the interval the Barber Adagio soared and lifted in exactly the right sort of manner, but I was somewhat troubled by the placement of the flautist at the front of the stage in the Vaughan Williams Greensleeves Fantasia. Although the flute does have a solo passage during the central section, playing the folk tune Lovely Joan, her role elsewhere is largely incidental and the forward placing exposed every break for breath taken by Catherine Hare – who would have been better served by a more backward position nearer the harp (resonantly played by Alis Huws). Incidentally it is sometimes stated that this Fantasia is taken from Vaughan Williams’s opera Sir John in Love, but in fact it is only the opening statement of the theme and its later reprise which form the interlude in Act Three. The middle section, using Lovely Joan, is extracted from an interlude during Act One which Vaughan Williams unaccountably indicated as an optional cut in his revision of the score, and it employs as a counterpoint the Falstaff theme “Thine own true knight” which, shorn of its reinforcement in the opera, is reduced to a rather less forceful statement in the Fantasia. (It is no good trying to hear it in the original form, since neither of the current recordings of the complete opera include this passage.)
Catherine Hare returned to play the bell in Pärt’s Cantus, but the drifting violin lines at the beginning were rather too loud and the bell didn’t always come through as a consequence. On the other hand we could have done with a bit more weight in the final statement of the canon theme, and it was unfortunate that the final solo bell stroke was rather upstaged by the striking of cathedral clock from above (to the amusement of the audience). In the concluding Elgar Introduction and Allegro, a fiendishly difficult piece for any string orchestra, some of the fast running passages could have done with a bit more definition in the violins (Elgar is largely to blame here), but the performance had plenty of weight and attack elsewhere and the sound in sustained passages had lots of body. Mark Eager took the fugue at a rather slower pace than customary, but made this work by the attentive pointing he obtained from the players.
One was left with the reflection that Llandaff Cathedral is an ideal venue for this sort of repertory, with more resonance and warmth than St David’s Hall and more spaciousness than the Hoddinott Hall. One must regret that concerts in the cathedral seem to be so rare nowadays – the old Llandaff Festival with its large-scale performances is now a distant memory – and the apparent lack of interest in the promotion of musical events by the cathedral authorities. A couple of weeks ago they announced that they were issuing redundancy notices to their professional choristers, and although these notices have now been withdrawn pending further consultation one can but find their attitude incomprehensible. Quite apart from the desirability of using the cathedral building to reach out into the local community, concerts there could be a valuable source of revenue.
Paul Corfield Godfrey