United Kingdom Hoddinott, Mozart, Holt, Parry, Bernstein: Rosemary Joshua* (soprano), BBC National Orchestra and Chorus+ of Wales/Grant Llewellyn (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 21.1.2014 (PCG)
Alun Hoddinott: Badger in the bag (2004): Dragon Fire (1998)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Exultate jubilate, K165 (1773)*
Simon Holt: St Vitus in the kettle (2008)
Hubert Parry: I was glad (1902, revised 1911)+
Leonard Bernstein: Chichester Psalms (1965)+*
This concert was held to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the opening of Hoddinott Hall, and like most commemorative concerts was something of a mixed bag. The hall itself forms the principal studio space for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and its pleasantly resonant acoustic serves to highlight the very considerable qualities of the players, heard to their best advantage and on extremely good form at present. The hall is conveniently situated in the complex of the Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay; it is perhaps rather too small for the largest-scale works, which come across well in terms of broadcast sound but can seem overwhelming in the context of the hall itself. But it nevertheless remains acoustically one of the best performing spaces in Cardiff, even though the audience capacity in rather utilitarian seating is limited.
The hall was named posthumously in honour of Alun Hoddinott (1929-2008), former Professor of Music at the University of Wales in Cardiff. During his lifetime Hoddinott was widely regarded as the leading composer in Wales, although for some years now his reputation has been overshadowed by that of his contemporary William Mathias (1934-93) who was Professor of Music in Bangor. Hoddinott wrote a vast amount of music mostly to commissions – which he solicited assiduously – but although his works received first performances from many artists of the first rank (including Mtislav Rostropovich, Gwyneth Jones, Margaret Price and Geraint Evans) not many of them received more than a single performance; and of the many recordings sponsored by the Welsh Arts Council a large number have since disappeared from the catalogues.
An example of the manner in which his reputation had been eclipsed even before his death came during the opening concert at the Millennium Centre, when the Pendyrus Male Choir – who had commissioned and given first performances of several of his works – were asked to pay a tribute to the composer not with some of his own music but with a rendition of Joseph Parry’s saccharine partsong Myfanwy, a piece which I imagine Hoddinott himself would have heartily loathed. Indeed the only works by Hoddinott which have maintained a precarious toehold on the mainstream repertory are his occasional pieces based on Welsh folksongs and dances, which fall directly into the category of ‘light music.’ His more serious works, including ten numbered symphonies, suffered from a rather grey academic use of twelve-tone technique with some overtones of tonal structure in the Bergian style, to which his habitual overlay of tuned percussion lent a surface glitter which failed to disguise its basic lack of memorability. In this concert room was found for two pieces by Hoddinott; but the opening and brief Badger in a bag found jazzy dance rhythms set rather uneasily alongside brass and percussion dominated climaxes, and the relationship of the music to the story drawn from the Mabinogion on which it was based was far from evident. Hoddinott’s suggestion that “the constant kicks and blows might be compared to a throw on a fruit machine” hardly served to clarify matters.
While Badger in the bag with its massive percussion contingent had seemed over noisy for the hall, the following Mozart Exultate jubilate fitted the acoustic like a glove. Rosemary Joshua had been scheduled to sing the work at St David’s Hall with the orchestra last May, but had been unable to do so because she was unwell; here she filled the hall with deliciously creamy sound, the orchestra sounded rich without being over-romantic, and the oboes were delightfully chirpy. Joshua was able to project clearly in the acoustic space, with exquisite results in the quietly sustained notes at the words “tu consulare.”
The fragmentary nature of the programme in this concert necessitated lots of platform re-arrangement between items, and the following St Vitus in the kettle by Simon Holt dispensed with all the orchestral strings with the exception of six double-basses. Their only evident function appeared to be the prominent use of snappy Bartókian snap pizzicatos to reinforce the percussion, restricted to two players but quite capable of making enough noise on their own account. The music was peculiarly disjointed, held chords (with an uncomfortably prominent use of piercing high piccolo) alternating with louder rhythmic passages for no very clear reason; although the work was clearly programmatic in inspiration, Holt’s own notes did little to assist the audience’s comprehension.
The programme note by Peter Reynolds for Hoddinott’s Dragon Fire was more explicit about the nature of the music, here apparently receiving its first performance since its première fifteen years ago. Reynolds described the work as “neither programmatic nor purely abstract”, but one certainly received the impression of some sort of scenario underpinning the music’s twelve short sections, especially with the use of wind machine and thunder sheet in a couple of places which brought the atmosphere of a score for an imaginary film. But unfortunately for much of the time, as so often with Hoddinott, the fragmentary construction militated against any real sense of continuous development even though the linked movements fell into a symphonic fast-slow-fast pattern. Nevertheless this is one of Hoddinott’s most successful pieces, with some memorable material and even a rich string cantilena arching melodically over the central slow section. Steve Barnard coped manfully with the concerto-like role given to the timpani, aided and abetted by a wide variety of other percussion.
After the interval the orchestra was joined by the chorus for Parry’s I was glad, which they have recently recorded. Situated above and behind the orchestra at some geographical remove, they nevertheless managed to maintain a good balance and the climaxes in the score were thrillingly resonant. Anthony Burton’s programme note suggested that we would be given the liturgical Coronation cries of “Vivat Regina” – but in fact they were (correctly) omitted in this performance.
The more percussion textures of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms sometimes threatened to smother the chorus especially in some sections of the first movement, but the results were thrillingly vibrant. The use of Rosemary Joshua as a soprano soloist in the second movement (contrary to Bernstein’s instructions for a male alto or counter-tenor) worked well, with Joshua placed within the orchestra in front of the percussion; and the small incidental solos for individual members of the chorus also came across well, with Hollie-Anne Clark and James Geidt particularly effective in their little duet passage in the last movement. In the string-saturated textures of this movement, the ideal balance between chorus and orchestra produced a truly transcendent effect.
Paul Corfield Godfrey