Piazzolla’s Passacaglia Meets Vivaldi’s Virtuosity with WNO String Ensemble.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Shostakovich, Arensky, Vivaldi/Piazzolla: WNO String Ensemble, David Adams, leader, RWCMD, Cardiff, 25/06/14  (LJ). 
Shostakovich, Two Pieces for String Octet Op. 11, No. 1
Arensky, Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky
Vivaldi/Piazzolla, The Eight Seasons

Greeted by a live Welsh-folk band, lit by dappled sunlight as it glinted through the leafy trees and shone through the windows of Cardiff’s RWCMD; the overall ambiance was one of uplifting serenity. Waiting in the wings of the Dora Stoutzker Hall was the Welsh National Opera String Ensemble joined by selected RWCMD students, as part of a side-by-side mentoring and rehearsal scheme to nurture and encourage young talent. Guest students included Jonathan Hoyle and Elizabeth French (first violins), Beth Fuller-Teed (second violin), Benjamin Newton (viola), Benjamin Jones (cello), and Hannah Grimley (double bass). All showed a high degree of professionalism and musicianship, and delivered encouraging performances.

Led by the charming and charismatic David Adams who instilled confidence and enthusiasm in his musicians and provided interesting comments related to each piece, the WNO String Ensemble played a technically demanding repertoire.Equally at home on violin and viola; in this concert Adams played a Johannes Gagliano violin from 1800 which produced a pellucid tone.

Written as a tender lament to his close friend who died from typhoid, Shostakovich’s Prelude from his Two Pieces for String Octet is a dark, mournful piece. Adams’s willowy lyricism enhanced this sentiment of loss and dejection which emerges from the anguished Tchaikovsky-like swathes of romantic chords. The Octet was particularly good at evoking Shostakovich’s hazy, gossamer harmonies towards the end of the first movement and intelligently highlighted Shostakovich’s layered echoes between instrumentalists. The Scherzo is a furiously splintering cubist arrangement where frenzy and despair abound. Influenced by Stravinsky whom Shostakovich both venerated and deplored – in a letter to Glikman, Shostakovich wrote: ‘Stravinsky the composer I worship. Stravinsky the thinker I despise’ – this movement is industrial and mechanical, enforcing a futurist outlook.

Displaying muscular agility, Adams was enthralling and led his musicians with a perfect balance between direct instructiveness and a sensitive laissez-faire approach. Principal cellist Rosie Biss’s solo entirely on the C-string created an eerie and chilling atmosphere enhanced by pizzicato accompaniment and closed by a definitive glissando. Feeling that the Scherzo was ‘the very best thing I have written’, Shostakovich’s piece marked his establishment as a well-respected modernist composer whose music consists of dizzying chromaticism, virtuosic cadenzas, highly rhythmic and lightly lyrical passages forcefully driven and sometimes jarringly contrasted with piquantly dissonant passages. In this short piece, these Shostakovian characteristics were brought alive by the consummate WNO Octet.

With the cellists beginning the simple yet poignant theme of Anton Arensky’s first variation, the WNO String Ensemble emitted warmth and tenderness as they filled the hall with heartfelt emotion and grace. Based on the theme from Tchaikovsky’s song Legend: Christ in His Garden (the fifth of his Sixteen Children’s Songs, Op. 54); Arensky’s Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky (composed in 1894) illustrates Arensky’s admiration of Tchaikovsky’s music. Indeed, the tearful Coda to this piece is based on a Russian Orthodox chant, and was affectionately composed in homage to the masterful Russian composer. The WNO String Ensemble played this closing section with a tone of mournful resignation, evoking the painful sense of emptiness felt upon the loss of a loved one. To quote from Richard Henry Stoddard’s poem which inspired this piece: ‘And each did pluck himself a rose, / Until they stripped the garden bare’. Speaking of Arensky’s adoration for Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov stated: ‘In his youth Arensky did not escape some influence from me; later the influence came from Tchaikovsky’, rather unkindly adding ‘he will quickly be forgotten’. However, not only the sounds of Tchaikovsky can be heard in this piece, Dvorak and Saint-Saens are two composers who come to mind when listening to Arensky’s Variations. As the WNO String Ensemble explored the different moods of the seven variations with impressive quietude and compassion; forgotten Arensky is not.

Now pieces which unfairly evoke frustration at the end of an endless phone-queue, tediousness when shopping in a furniture store, or awkward silences when in a lift; in an attempt to revive Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, these pieces have increasingly become subjects of radical musical-makeovers. In this performance, Vivaldi’s seasons were seamlessly spliced with those of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Through witty cross-references and allusions, Il Prete Rosso’s Four Seasons were intricately interwoven and cannily juxtaposed with Piazzolla’s sensuously intoxicating tango vibes. With birdsong, thunder, mosquitoes, ice, trickling brooks and barking dogs, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is unquestionably eclectic and virtuosic enough to incorporate these fresh insights. For the 2013 Proms, performing with the Palestine Strings from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, Nigel Kennedy included jazz, Middle-Eastern and klezmer sounds. Similarly, tonight’s performance under the spirited leadership of David Adams was tight, controlled and bursting with ebullient virtuosity. Adams passionately drove the ensemble to produce the most engaging and fetching music, merging the sounds of string ensemble with tango band in a subtle yet quirky fashion. The suave interchange between Piazzolla and Vivaldi was facilitated by the way in which Adams ingratiated himself with his musicians, both asserting predominance and allowing space for individuality.

After recording Maria de Buenos Aires, Gidon Kremer (with the assistance of composer and close friend Leonid Desyatnikov) had the idea to re-orchestrate Piazzolla’s Cuatro estaciones porteñas combined with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As Kramer suggests, the holistic unification and intimate dialogue within this piece is indebted to ‘Desyatnikov’s achievement to make Piazzolla speak directly to Vivaldi, and in such a way also Vivaldi to Piazzolla, because using certain quotations of Vivaldi in the context of the score helps to build bridges between these two different geniuses, two different cycles, two different worlds, making them a unit, a unity, giving them full exposure of the vitality, not just on its own but in the dialogue, making this dialogue possible.’ Though it is undeniable that both works stand tall as towering masterpieces in their own right; this combination enhances and magnifies their relevance for a contemporary audience, with its fragmentary nature, referential allusiveness and global inclusiveness. In their electrifying performance, the WNO String Ensemble created a musical language which disbanded borders between musical genres as they cannily conjoined musical styles from different periods and places.

All musicians showed fearlessness and were confident in their delivery. Whether they flitted away into the audience as twittering violinists or were seated centre stage playing cello solos with aplomb, the WNO String Ensemble were kept on their toes as they met the swift musical interchanges with an air of nonchalance and genuine enjoyment. The feverish runs, percussive effects (playing col legno), and altercating dynamics were played with a high degree of attentiveness and exactitude, held together by a harpsichordist, unwaveringly strong bass section and Adams himself. Sometimes interrupting the flow of the piece with applauding outbursts, Adams quipped ‘you can clap whenever you like’ after wowing the audience with his performance of Summer. Understandably, these gushing interruptions continued to pepper this recital.Though centuries and continents apart, tonight’s performance of this simultaneously intimate and far-reaching arrangement left the audience swooning, stamping and shouting for more.

Lucy Jeffery 

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