Exhilarating Performances at Swansea International Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Mozart, Sibelius: Lars Vogt (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 3.10.2015. (NR)

Beethoven, Debussy, Rossini:  Trio Apaches [Ashley Wass (piano), Matthew Trusler (violin), Thomas Carroll (cello)], Brangwyn Hall, Swansea. 4.10.2015, (NR)

Mendelssohn:  Hebrides Overture, op. 26

Mozart:  Piano Concerto in E flat, K. 271

Sibelius: Symphony no. 5, op. 82

Beethoven: Trio in E flat, op. 11

Debussy, arr. Beamish:  La Mer

Rossini, arr. Trio Apaches: William Tell Overture

The Swansea Festival, running every autumn since 1948, has, as Glyn Pursglove explained on these pages, been revamped and re-branded slightly as the Swansea International Festival, under its new chairman David Hastie and director Lyndon Jones. It now takes in a variety of entertainments and venues, soon to be augmented by the new concert hall of Swansea University’s Bay Campus. But the festival remains centred on the Brangwyn Hall, and was given a strong start by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner.

His approach to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture certainly whetted the appetite for the Sibelius to come, as the contrasts between the calm, almost languid outset of the voyage and the stormy discoveries was clearly, even perhaps rather too clearly marked. I felt, as I was to feel again later, that power was tending to prevail slightly at the expense of subtlety, although the drop back towards silence at the close was finely handled.

Lars Vogt set off in K. 271 as if he wanted to be Mozart and conduct the piece as well as play it. He responded to the pianistic showmanship in this work, awash as it is with cadenzas and flourishes, with real energy, and, in the opening of the finale in particular, with a kind of bustling glee that swept all before it. This led to some occasionally muddy passage-work, but equally to moments, indeed to whole sections, of authority and command.

I certainly wasn’t surprised by the power and force of Gardner’s Sibelius. Once or twice the timpani threatened to drown everything, but there was some beautifully nuanced work throughout, especially from the woodwinds. But perhaps it’s a work where, in the end, grandeur is such as to offer something nuance can’t; the great themes carry all before them, and the closing six chords were as superbly timed and played as I’ve heard.

The following morning saw an equally exhilarating concert by the Trio Apaches, taking their name from the pre-First War artists in Paris, including Ravel and Stravinsky, who regarded themselves as hooligan outcasts. The confrontational element in this trio confined itself however to their choice of repertoire, as the principal item was an arrangement, almost a recomposition, by Sally Beamish of Debussy’s La Mer, not a piece one would immediately imagine in this format. I had mixed feelings as to how well it worked. The paring-down led to an inevitable loss of colour, but also to an intriguing exposure of the bones of the music – I remember thinking the same when hearing Ashley Wass, a few years ago, playing a piano arrangement of the Enigma Variations. The ferocious technical difficulties of Beamish’s rendition were effortlessly surmounted, and the surges pounded along, but once or twice one’s amazement at the doing rather distracted from what was being done. I really need to hear it again before commenting further.

The Apaches’ enthusiasm for the brilliantly quirky was equally evident in their own version of the William Tell Overture, and here there was no questioning the marvellous uplift sheer virtuosity can sometimes create. More respectably, they played Beethoven’s E flat Trio with style, beauty, and in the finale variations a proper sense of the light jocularity of the theme, a well-known popular aria of its time. As a group their interaction and communication with each other and the sparse but appreciative audience was well-nigh perfect.

Neil Reeve


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