Northern Sinfonia Offer “Musical Nourishment” to Welsh Ears

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prokofiev, Barber, Mozart, Rodrigo: Craig Ogden (guitar), Northern Sinfonia, Bradley Creswick (leader), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 2.12.2015 (PCG)

Prokofiev – Symphony No 1 in D, Op.25 Classical
Barber – Adagio for strings, Op.11
Mozart – Symphony No 36 in C, K425 Linz
Rodrigo – Concierto de Aranjuez (1940)


St David’s Hall in their International Concert Series had made great play of their engagement of Montenegran guitarist Miloš Karadaglić for this concert, featuring him not only in their advance publicity but on the cover of all their programmes for the season. It was therefore unlucky that the soloist had to cancel all his appearances on his current UK tour because of a muscle strain in his hand which had compelled him to withdraw; but at the same time we were lucky in that Craig Ogden stepped into the gap, and the programme (with some adjustment) could therefore be presented without substantial alteration.

One problem that did became manifest during the performance of the Rodrigo concerto may have been the result of the substitution, but at the same time was unfortunate. This concerned the matter of amplification of the guitar. Now it is clearly essential in a large hall that the solo line should be amplified – Rodrigo’s scoring is at times quite loud – but it does raise the question of the balance that is achieved. The touchstone for this comes in the famous slow movement, where the extensive guitar cadenza rises to a climax before the orchestra storms back in with the main theme. This should ideally crown the cadenza with a surge of sound; but here the playing of the Northern Sinfonia, excellent in itself, was lacking in sheer punch compared to the amplified guitar playing that had preceded it, and the result was just slightly anticlimactic. Elsewhere the balances were much better judged, and Craig Ogden was able to inflect his solo line with some passages of remarkable delicacy. The audience interrupted the performance to applaud the slow movement, and a storm of cheering greeting the finale with its slyly offbeat ending. Ogden and the orchestra then furnished a substantial encore in the form of Piazzolla’s Libertango, in which the solo violin playing of Bradley Creswick also shone out; elsewhere he directed the performances from a sedentary position without any loss of control, and indeed with plenty of subtle rubato which demonstrated the willingness of the players to really interact with each other in the best chamber music tradition. At the end of the first half of the concert Ogden played three short items for solo guitar (this time without any amplification) which included a cheeky and adventurous showpiece Rondo Rodeo by Gary Ryan which brought laughter from the audience. He also supplied spoken introductions to these pieces, explaining elements of guitar technique, which made a welcome change from the anonymous presentation of encores of which I have had occasion to complain in the past.

The programme had opened with Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, a work which in many ways anticipated the neo-classical movement with its scoring for what Peter Reynolds in his programme notes described as a “Mozart-sized orchestra.” Now there is some room for debate as to what size of string section Prokofiev actually required, and certainly the definition of a “Mozart-sized orchestra” would have been substantially different in the 1920s from what we would expect in today’s more historically informed atmosphere. Here the Northern Sinfonia fielded a substantial body of fourteen violins, which seems about right; and the balance between woodwind and strings was pretty well ideal with only a couple of places where a larger volume of string sound might have been preferable. There were no such concerns in the Mozart Linz Symphony, given a performance that had delicacy and punch as required.

The Barber Adagio is another work which can bear performance by a large body of symphonic strings, and indeed benefit from it; but it was of course originally written for string quartet, and the playing here trod a fine line between chamber reserve and romantic passion. It is easy today, when this piece is so popular, to under-estimate the emotional worth and strength of this work. Bradley Creswick started at a daringly slow pace, which forced the listener to come to the music with fresh ears and appreciate its merits without preconceptions.

The audience was gratifyingly large, even though the hall management had contacted all those who had pre-booked tickets to advise them of the change of principal performer; and they were well rewarded by a programme that might have seemed ‘popular’ but actually furnished some real nourishment for the ears.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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