Vale of Glamorgan Festival Ends on a Positive Note

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Raats, Pärt ,Tüür,  Kortits: Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Harry Traksmann (leader), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 22.5.2015  (PCG)

Jaan Rääts (b.1932) – Concerto for chamber orchestra, Op.16 (1961)
Arvo Pärt (b.1935) – Trisagion (1992/4)
Erkki-Sven Tüür (b.1959) – Action.Passion.Illusion (1993)
Tönu Kortits (b.1969) – Elegies of Thule (2007)

Reynolds, Pärt, Xiao, Tabakova: Soloists from China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra, Norwegian Church, Cardiff Bay, 22.5.2015  (PCG)

Peter Reynolds (b.1958) – Canons for the longest day (2010)
Arvo Pärt – Fratres (1989): Summa (1977/91)
Ying Xiao – Last P (2015) world première
Dobrinka Tabakova (b.1980) – Organum Light (2014): Such Different Paths

Tabakova,  Pärt , Kristina Blaumane (cello) and Ceri Wynne Jones (harp), Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tallinn Chamber Orchestra / Kristjan Järvi (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 23.5 2015  (PCG)

Dobrinka Tabakova – Cello Concerto (2008)  UK premiere
Centuries of Meditations (2012)
Arvo Pärt – Adam’s Lament (2010)
Stabat Mater (2008)

The lunchtime concert by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra offered a conspectus of the development of Estonian music since the Second World War, and opened with Rääts’s Concerto for chamber orchestra which, we were told, began the process of development of style away from the ‘Soviet realism’ imposed under Russian occupation. Rääts was described as a neo-classicist, but his style here seemed to owe more to Bartók and English composers for string orchestra such as Britten and Tippett (but how much of their music was even heard in Estonia at this period?). The music here had a clearly outlined tonal basis, but the sustained melodies (of which there were many) lacked a distinctive profile except in the third movement. The playing, especially of the high violins, was very assured and proceeded with warmth and grandeur in the fourth movement, and the finale was quite Shostakovich-like in its mischievously infectious headlong scampering.

Pärt’s Trisagion is positively Pinteresque in its employment of pregnant pauses, but the players successfully brought a sense of progress to the notes, producing a sense of line which propelled the music forward. The convoluted contrapuntal textures of Tüür’s triptych could have been more clearly delineated, but the resonant acoustic of the hall (so effective elsewhere in this concert) cannot have helped. The final movement brought us full circle back to Rääts’s neo-classicism.

The final item on the programme, Elegies of Thule by Tönu Korvits (present in the hall to receive well-deserved applause), was an absolute beauty. The opening Night is darkening movement had the eerie stillness one finds in English works such as Moeran’s Lonely waters, and Bells brought a delightfully melodious line over a dancing pizzicato. The final movement, a set of variations on the folksong I look up to the hill, brought some highly innovative counterpoint before the main theme returned with all the warmth and passion of Vaughan Williams’s Dives and Lazarus. It was very well played indeed. I very much look forward to hearing this piece, and other works by the composer, again.

In another event the same evening we heard two more works by Pärt in a chamber concert given in the closely observed acoustic of the old wooden Norwegian church in Cardiff Bay by soloists from China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra. Their performance of the quartet version of Fratres made an interesting contrast to the string orchestra of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in February of this year (reviewed by myself for this site). The Chinese players took a more forthright approach after some rather husky harmonics at the start, with bows rather too much in evidence on the strings; but the more forward pacing paid dividends in bringing emotional weight to the music. Summa similarly moved purposefully forward, but at the same time lacked a sense of the mystery which should also surely form part of the equation.

Peter Reynolds’s Canons for the longest day which opened the programme was a reworking of an earlier piece for string orchestra which certainly in its opening pages inhabited very much the same sound world as Pärt. In due course the music roamed more freely, although never stepping beyond the bounds of tonality; but the texture of the string septet robbed the work of some warmth and body even in the resonant acoustic of the room. Ying Xiao’s Last P, here receiving its first performance, ploughed a much narrower furrow; the composer in his programme note expressed a wish to “develop a compositional style that is part of a new universal language”, but the presumably deliberate citations of the main theme from the slow movement from Schubert’s First Piano Trio and the closing bars of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht with their fluttering arpeggios seemed to combine somewhat uncomfortably with more minimalist textures elsewhere. There was a curious effect at the beginning, with the two viola players apparently drawing their bows slowly across the wood of the instrument, but the results were never more than indistinctly audible. There was a rich blend of harmony in places, but the resulting sounds were not always comfortable.

In the second half of the programme we heard two works by Dobrinka Tabakova, one of the featured composers (alongside Pärt) in this year’s Festival. Organum Light opened with rich tonic chords, harmonically developed in the higher strings in passages which in some ways were reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia or even Szymanowski’s Byzantine textures at the opening of King Roger. The slow glissandi in the first violin came as quite a shock in their context but the music’s return to the opening material was most beautifully handled. The same composer’s Such different paths seemed to inhabit a rather different world, but it was difficult to judge because for some inexplicable reason the Festival’s splendidly produced and comprehensive programme booklet gave us no details about the music and its clearly explicit meaning. The busy opening sounded rather like an extended version of the dawn music from Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage, but the concentrated counterpoint that followed was more abrasive in tone. The melodic line that emerged on the cello brought relief and the variations on the theme that followed were clearly delineated, even though the walking ostinato bass line became altogether too insistent. It eventually took on a dour dark form as an accompaniment to a long ecstatic violin solo which was clearly intended to symbolise something, possibly the nightingale descending. We needed a bit of help here.

Tabakova’s Concerto for cello and strings received its UK première in the final concert of the Festival. The ‘turbulent’ opening recalled the earlier style of John Adams, with vigorous cello figurations expertly handled by Kristina Blaumane leading into a more relaxed style in the middle of the movement. The heart of the concerto however came in the ‘longing’ second movement, where a chord sequence that reminded this listener of the beautiful Romanza from the Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony was elaborated by cello ruminations on a thematic counterpoint which developed into a rich and beautifully romantic melody which moved through Protecting Veil territory into an emotional stillness worthy of Elgar. The ‘radiant’ final movement fused elements from the earlier sections, with the ‘Vaughan Williams’ chords developing into a soaring theme (oddly enough initially introduced by the leading cello from the orchestra) which provided a most satisfying conclusion. It was astounding that this magnificent concerto has had to wait seven years for a British outing following its first performance in Amsterdam. It should certainly be heard again, soon and regularly.

Tabakova’s Centuries of Meditations, based on poems by Thomas Traherne, had received its first performance at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival three years ago, when it had received rapturous notices from critics. I was less impressed by it than by the concerto, at any rate in this performance when the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir did not seem altogether at home in the English language. The cantata consisted of four movements, with texts selected by the composer from the seventeen century English mystic; but whereas Finzi in his selection for his song cycle Dies natalis had carefully chosen passages that translated well into musical terms, some of the passages here were less happy: “Till I at last arrive to Thee, the source of all felicity!” or “Heaven and Earth after his similitude,” to take just two examples. Where Finzi and Tabakova did set similar texts (as in “The green trees when I saw them first”) Finzi, with some judicious cutting of the original, produced a sense of timeless wonder that eluded Tabakova’s more straightforward sense of ecstasy with a lively rippling accompaniment and the text repeated for the final section (a solecism that Finzi avoided). The relatively brief third movement “You are as prone to love as the sun to shine” was beautifully set, but even here we needed the words provided to the audience to understand the text.

I am afraid to say that Arvo Pärt’s Stabat Mater which concluded the concert is not a work that greatly appeals to me. The mediaeval sequence itself lacks any sense of dramatic development – unlike, for example, the Dies irae – and it therefore becomes incumbent on the composer to provide this. But Pärt’s stop-go treatment of the text, with pauses it seems between nearly every line (and sometimes in the middle of them too), becomes almost a parody of his earlier lapidary manner, and the brief eruptions of busy, almost frisky, string interludes between some of the verses seem designed to avoid monotony than any response to the words that precede or follow them. The stratospheric lines given to the chorus at Fac me plagis vulmerari (there are no basses in the score) are mirrored in the protracted closing Amen, but there is no sense of fulfilment in the final vision of Paradise to bring the work to a conclusion.

Much more interesting was the same composer’s Adam’s Lament, written two years later to Russian verses by St Silouan of Athos (1886-1938). Here we found a much closer sense of engagement with the text, and the choir (with a full complement of basses) seemed much happier with the Russian language than with English. Unfortunately the text with which we were supplied gave the words in English translation only, so that I soon lost track of exactly where we were; but the general outline was clear enough, and there was much evidence of close dramatic identification with the lamenting Adam, both on his expulsion from Paradise (with forceful strings), the murder of his son Abel, and the poet’s own final plea for mercy. This final section, with its combination of rushing tremolo strings with passages of utter stillness, had a sense of emotional grip which recalled both in method and effect Sibelius’s treatment of the Finnish creation myth in Luonnotar. It seems to me that this work, written at the time of Pärt’s 75th birthday five years ago, shows the composer in the process of moving away from his long-established ‘tintabullistic’ style into something rather more dramatically focused. Hopefully he will lead us further along the same path, because the results could be very interesting indeed.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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