United Kingdom Dukas, Schmitt, Stravinsky: National Youth Orchestra of Wales / Paul Daniel (Conductor), The Cathedral, Hereford, 30.7.2015 (RJ)
Paul Dukas: La Péri
Florent Schmitt: La tragédie de Salomé
Igor Stravinsky: Le sacré du printemps
The Three Choirs Festival is 300 years old but far from resting on its laurels it seems to reinvent itself every year. Aside from the concerts devoted to great choral works, such as Elgar’s Gerontius, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Bach’s St Matthew Passion, there are plenty of other events of infinite variety – recitals, talks on everything from the Magna Carta to Elgar, walks and excursions, an organ master class and – surely the ultimate experience? – a croquet match between the deans of Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester Cathedrals. (I hope to include the result in a later report from Hereford.)
But let’s get back to the music. This concert was billed as The Rite of Spring, but that only accounted for the second half of the programme. The first was devoted to Dukas, but not the familiar Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and a Salomé, with not even a hint Richard Strauss in it. How imaginative to feature neglected works that very few in the audience were familiar with!
Dukas’ ballet score La Péri was premiered in the same year as Stravinsky’s ballet and was the composer’s last major work. It is inspired by Persian legend of Alexander the Great and his search for the flower of immortality. He steals it from its guardian, a female genie, when she is asleep, but she uses guile to recover it by seducing Alexander.
The work began with a fanfare and rousing passage for brass in which the young brass players acquitted themselves with distinction. In the following passage the strings were equally superb but in a different way, their shimmering pianissimos creating an atmosphere of mystery which was reinforced by the sinuous woodwind. The two attractive themes of the work underwent several transformations before finally converging, and subtle percussion effects conjured up a very Oriental atmosphere. This was a beautifully controlled performance full of colour and atmosphere, well up to the standard of the composer’s more popular work immortalised by Disney.
Florens Schmitt despite his German name was born in the French province of Lorraine near the German border. His hour long ballet La tragédie de Salomé was premiered in 1907, five years before the other works in this concert, and is regarded as a forerunner to The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky is reported to have said it gave him greater joy than any work he’d heard for a long time – but changed his tune when he fell out with Schmitt.
The original score was for a 20 piece orchestra, which was hard to imagine when hearing this re-orchestrated and shortened version conceived as a symphonic poem which made extensive use of all sections of the orchestra. The Dance of the Pearls began gently with atmospheric contributions from the woodwind and strings and some exceptional oboe playing which gave the passage a haunting quality somewhat reminiscent of Debussy. It was followed by the more rhythmic Dance of Lightning (originally entitled the Dance of Silver) with plenty of thunderclaps from the percussion and excited, playing from the strings. The Dance of Fear began with some menacing sounds from the bassoon, nervousness from the strings and led up to some remarkable orchestral effects evoking a raging wind and hurricane. The ever youthful Paul Daniel guided the young Welsh musicians through the score with clarity, zest and enthusiasm.
These two works were a useful preparation for the landmark Stravinsky ballet that followed. Le sacré du printemps is a complex and challenging work work which caused difficulties for professional orchestras in its early days, so it is remarkable that the National Youth Orchestra of Wales should even think of tackling it. Yet they accomplished the task magnificently thanks to the precise direction given by the conductor. The woodwind came into its own with the wonderfully evocative introduction and later the relentless percussive playing of the strings created an exciting frenzied, pagan atmosphere. With some formidable contributions from the brass and percussion it was impossible to remain aloof from the excitement of the ritual.
A good deal of solid preparation had evidently gone into this performance which demonstrated a standard of playing I’m sure many a professional orchestra would be glad to attain. Precision, commitment and passion seem to be the hallmarks of this wonderful orchestra, and if anyone wonders where the classical musicians of tomorrow will come from, having heard the NYOW in action I can report that the Principality is teeming with burgeoning musical talent.