Three World Premieres at the End of a Welsh Pier

United KingdomUnited Kingdom    Adams, Lunn, Pärt, Green, Kúrtag, Wallace, Ayres: Antoine Françoise and Robin Green (pianos), *David Childs (euphonium), *Patrick King (timpani). Penarth Pier Pavilion, Cardiff. 16.5. 2015 (PCG)

John Adams (b.1947) – Hallelujah Junction (1998)
Ben Lunn (b.1990) – The Horror and the Estasy (2014) world première
Arvo Pärt (b.1935) – Hymn to a Great City (1984)
Tom Green (b.1986) – Between the Waves (2015) world première
György Kúrtag (b.1926) – Játékok: two movements (1979)
Andrew Wallace (b.1994) – Astral Travel (2014) world première
Richard Ayres (b.1965) – No 35 (Overture) for piano duo, timpani and euphonium*

Programmes at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival are invariably enterprising, and this lunchtime recital was no exception. As Robin Green pointed out at the beginning, four out of the seven composers represented on the programme were present in the hall; and it is a testimony to the credit enjoyed by John Metcalf, artistic director of the Festival, that a near-capacity audience were prepared to trust his judgement and attend a concert of such unfamiliar music.

Two pianists at one keyboard can usually co-ordinate their playing without too much difficulty, but when they are separated onto two separate instruments the matter of simply playing together on the beat can be much more problematic. But these problems were nowhere present in this recital, not even in the fiendishly complex cross-rhythms of John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction, the longest piece on the programme. Difficulties were triumphantly overcome in the almost jazzy final section when it seemed that a train crash was imminent (although the title describes a truck stop rather than the expected railway station).

Ben Lunn’s highly dramatic The horror and the ecstasy was interrupted even before it began by a persistently bleeping fire alarm, and unfortunately ambient noises from outside the hall became very noticeable afterwards as children played on the pier in the warm weekend sun. The piece contrasted two elements, one pianist erupting in smashing chords in the lower register, the resonant harmonics of which were picked up and delicately elaborated by the other player. Indeed the elaborations were so delicate that they were sometimes drowned out by the background noise; but the results, as so often with this composer, were hypnotically beautiful in their effect.

After this the Pärt miniature Hymn to a Great City, written in New York but later withdrawn until it re-emerged in a revised version in 1999, was straightforward in the extreme: a slow chorale-like melody overlaid by a repeated piano note like a cross between Chopin’s Raindrop and Ravel’s Gibbet. Tom Green’s Beneath the waves also made much play with a repeated E which in places sounded almost like an echo of the Pärt, but without the material surrounding it being either so distinctive or so  memorable despite some passages in contrary motion which worked well with both pianists being seated at the one instrument.  The same arrangement held for the two extracts from Kurtäg’s Games, where the sudden appearance of a sung line for one of the pianists in the aptly titled One more voice from far away sounded for a moment like a further contribution from the holiday crowds outside on the pier.

For Andrew Wallace’s Astral travel the pianists separated again to their own instruments and again the two players were given contrasted parts, if less dramatically than with Ben Lunn’s piece. But the textures were well integrated in their contrapuntal lines and there was a purposeful sense of development throughout although the conclusion was disconcertingly offhand. After a short pause we were then introduced to two further soloists in the shape of a euphonium and timpani for the piece by Richard Ayres which concluded the concert.

Although described by the composer as “an overture for an imaginary opera” the shape of No 35 seemed perplexingly formless. Quite early on we were introduced to the first In a series of what I suppose we could call “special effects” in the shape of some heavy breathing through a megaphone from the timpanist which recalled Je t’aime from the 1970s, followed immediately by the euphonium breathing through his instrument – a brass effect which I believe goes back to the first Manchester performance of the Vaughan Williams Sinfonia antartica when Barbirolli was  not satisfied with the tone on the wind machine that had  been provided, but an effect which has now become almost a cliché. The addition of a thunder sheet and various toy instruments amused the audience, and kept the listener’s interest piqued, but there was no sense whatsoever of a unified whole, merely of a succession of unmotivated effects. However the audience applauded enthusiastically at the end, and the players clearly deserve credit for the manner in which they rose to their comedic moments.

This was the second year in which I had attended a concert in the Vale of Glamorgan Festival at the newly refurbished Penarth Pier, but that last year had been given in the evening; and I would respectfully suggest that any future programmes at this venue should again be given after the tourists, the local residents and their children have gone home after a doubtless enjoyable afternoon. Either that, or perform music with a very loud volume quotient. The venue itself has a lovely and lively acoustic, and deserves support; the two pianos sounded excellent.


Paul Corfield Godfrey

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