Mediterranean Warmth Dispels the Chill of a December Evening in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Falla, Turina, Delius, Malcolm Arnold. Sean Shibe (guitar), Kitty Whateley (mezzo-soprano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Pablo González (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 16.12.2014 (PCG)

Joaquin Turina – Danzas fantásticas, Op.22 (1919)
Malcolm Arnold – Guitar Concerto (1959)
Frederick Delius – A Village Romeo and Juliet: ‘The walk to the Paradise Garden’ (1910)
Manuel de Falla – The three-cornered hat (1919)

This was a concert programme with a hint of Mediterranean warmth to dispel the chill weather outside the Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay. Although framed by two Spanish dance-inspired pieces, the Delius Walk to the Paradise Garden also breathed a sense of summer sunlight – and the Arnold Guitar Concerto, the first ever written for that quintessentially Spanish instrument by a British composer, formed a contrast that was not out of place. Some slight imprecision of ensemble in the impressionist quiet opening of the Turina score was surprising from these players, but they entered enthusiastically into the more rumbustious dance-like passages, and the flexibility demanded by the conductor elicited a thoroughly idiomatic response. The final Orgia was properly frenetic, with Rosie Biss’s poised cello solo rounding off the work perfectly.

The orchestra thinned out drastically for Arnold’s Guitar Concerto, with even the strings reduced by more than half and only three wind instruments. This did not, however ,obviate the necessity, often felt in such concertos, to amplify the solo instrument, with the inevitable somewhat disconcerting result in the initial stages that the sound of the guitar seemed to come from somewhere else on the stage – in fact from a loudspeaker just in front of the soloist. But thankfully the incidental squeaks of fingers on strings which can result from a too close microphone observation were seldom to be heard, and the amplification did allow the orchestra to play without any sense of circumspection; there was some marvellously gutsy attack in the string pizzicati. The remaining problems of balance will not have troubled radio listeners (the concert was broadcast live on Radio 3) and Sean Shibe’s inflection of the beautiful second theme in the opening movement was all that one could wish. The sleazy jazz feel of the second movement was also well captured, with marvellously woozy horn contributions from Tim Thorpe, enthusiastically abetted by Robert Plane’s clarinet and Matthew Featherstone’s flute. After the dark introspection of this extended slow movement, the courtly dance of the finale felt like a resolution too easily achieved, but Shibe played with style and aplomb.

It is amazing that Delius’s Walk to the Paradise Garden was written purely to cover a scene change in the Covent Garden performance of A Village Romeo and Juliet, since it seems to be such an essential part of the score – and indeed the most popular section of the opera. Delius’s luscious string lines might have been tailor-made for this orchestra, and they rose to the occasion to thrilling effect. This might seem unlikely territory for a Spanish conductor, but Pablo González – by turns volatile, ecstatic and quietly reflective – achieved a magnificent result without over-heating the subtle tensions of the music.

The complete performance of Falla’s ballet The three-cornered hat was, of course, home territory for González, and he gave a detailed and closely observed reading of the score. In the context of a live concert reading it was interesting to note the manner in which the composer held back on the use of the heavy brass until the final dance, but there was still plenty of body and volume in the sound which indeed threatened in places to ‘overload’ the resonant acoustic of the hall. González emphasised the characterful touches in the orchestration, epitomised by the shrieking blackbird represented by two piccolos in the opening scene and the quotation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on muted horns which draw chuckles from the audience. Jaroslav Augustyniak deservedly received a solo call for his representation of the Corregidor in his pointed bassoon playing, and the orchestra entered enthusiastically into the shouts of ‘Olé’ and clapping during the opening prelude. It was perhaps unfortunate that more details of the scenario could not have been included in Peter Reynolds’s programme note – it might have helped to explain some of the ‘effects’ for members of the audience unfamiliar with the ballet – but I understand that the author was given to understand that the performance was intended only to consist of Falla’s two orchestral suites rather than the complete score. Kitty Whately sounded thoroughly inside the Spanish idiom in her two short solo contributions.

It was a pity that the auditorium was less than half full for this afternoon concert, but the radio audience will doubtless have compensated for that (and the broadcast can be heard on BBC i-player for another month). Nonetheless this enjoyable programme formed a fitting conclusion to an adventurous year with this orchestra, who seem to go from strength to strength. There are some particularly interesting novelties scheduled for the later part of the season, but I am disappointed to observe that (apart from the annual workshop for Welsh composers) there seems to be no representation of any substantial Welsh scores in the Cardiff programme outside the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. Maybe this will be rectified.

Paul Corfield Godfrey