Concert Draws Out Similarities and Contrasts between Composers Vasks and Metcalf

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vale of Glamorgan Festival 5 – Vasks, Metcalf: Maxim Rysanov (viola), Alice Neary (cello), members of BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Edwin Outwater (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 20.5.2016. (PCG)

Pēteris Vasks – Cantabile (1979); Viola Concerto (2014-15)   world première

John Metcalf – Cello Symphony (2004)

For the final concert of this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival we were presented with music written by two of the featured composers in this year’s events, including the first ever performance of a new work commissioned jointly by BBC Radio 3, the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Festival itself (with funds provided by the Hinrichsen Foundation). This was the Viola Concerto by Pēteris Vasks, featuring no less renowned a soloist than Maxim Rysanov, which proved to be a very substantial work indeed.

The programme opened with Vasks’s relatively brief Cantabile, one of the pieces that initially established his reputation as a composer, but the work might well have been written with the present-day BBC National Orchestra of Wales in mind. The saturated string counterpoint suited the players ideally, and made it clear how much the music benefits from the use of full symphonic forces as opposed to a chamber body. The six double-basses provided a very solid foundation, like a subterranean force of nature, over which the elaborate textures flowered.

The strings were somewhat reduced in number for the première of Vasks’s Viola Concerto, but the solo instrument would clearly have come through loud and clear without this, as Rysanov poured forth plangent tone which dominated proceedings throughout. The concerto opened with a first movement of heart-rending beauty that one might have thought had become extinct with the music of Finzi and his contemporaries; the stately progression of suspended counterpoint had an immediate emotional impact which held the large audience spellbound. This was succeeded by a dance-like scherzando, with folksy inflections from the soloist and drone-like basses from the orchestra. There followed in turn a brilliant cadenza full of double-stopping and chords from Rysanov, and the ensuing slower section even appeared to hearken back to a sense of Elgarian nobility, not devoid of anguish and rising to a passionate statement. There then followed a second cadenza, of equal length to the first, which I am afraid was far too long for its context and as a consequence seemed to dissipate the emotional tension that had been built up. The result was that the long lyrical finale took a time to establish the requisite mood, and seemed to be over-extended for its content. Certainly one cannot accuse Vasks of stinting his listeners – a commissioned work which was projected to last 25 minutes turned out to be a full quarter of an hour longer than advertised – but although the results were beautiful some might have found the final flowering of lyricism boring. I did not. Vasks’s music, as we have discovered over the last fortnight, takes its own time over its development and refuses (rightly) to be hurried. Might I however beseech the composer, before the next performance (and I am sure there will be many such) to reconsider the scale of the second cadenza? Much of its material seemed to be a more or less straightforward repetition of ideas already heard in the first, and the beautiful atmosphere of the following finale would I suspect be enhanced by the truncation or even omission of the preceding material. Other than that one observation I have nothing but praise for the score, beautiful and emotional music for which the world is richer. Even the scoring, limited to string orchestra, has no lack of colour and contrast in the hands of these musicians.

On the other hand, the addition of wind instruments to the score in Metcalf’s Cello Symphony made an effective contrast following the interval. This was receiving its second performance in Cardiff since its première in Llandaff Cathedral in 2004. That presentation has been issued on CD by Nimbus, and Hubert Culot for this site described the work as “impressive, deeply moving and quite beautiful.” I can only concur. Indeed this performance, in the smaller but still resonant Hoddinott Hall, gave the writing a clarity that the cathedral acoustic as heard on the recording lacked; and the playing of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was more secure and nuanced than were the English Symphony Orchestra (under William Boughton) then. Nor did the playing of Alice Neary, always audible over the orchestra, cede any points to Raphael Wallfisch at the première. The one disappointment came with the size of the choir (eight voices) which failed to make their mark in the same way as did the Ardwyn Singers in Llandaff. This might well be rectified in the recorded balance, since the performance was being recorded for future broadcast.

The use of a male choir is not totally unknown in concertante works – one thinks of the piano concertos by Busoni or Alan Bush – but so far as I know Metcalf is the first composer to combine singers with cello in a work of this kind. This is not the only unusual element in the scoring; Metcalf omits middle-register instruments like oboes and horns altogether, but then bolsters the sound with a part for organ which never dominates but provides a plush ‘bedding’ around which the orchestra adds richly embellished textures. The wordless chorus provide a sort of halo around these, and the various passages where they doubled the bassoons and solo cello were most effective. The use of percussion was sparing – no timpani, and just a couple of isolated phrases for glockenspiel and a single bell stroke – and was all the more effective for that. The work begins with a slow nocturnal procession which progresses into more impassioned material before returning to the more lyrical mood of the opening – a most satisfying use of one-movement form. This is music which deserves to be heard again and again, and its neglect since the Llandaff première is disgraceful. Here it formed a fitting tribute to the composer on his seventieth birthday. Incidentally this year was also the seventieth birthday of Vasks; but despite some superficial similarities, and a clear love for the British ‘pastoral’ tradition, the two composers are very different musical characters. This concert, drawing out both the similarities as well as the contrasts between the two, was rewarding beyond measure.

Paul Corfield Godfrey


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