Mismatch of Performers and Venue Robs Interesting Concert of a Little of its Gloss


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vivaldi, Caldara, Torelli:  Adrian Chandler (violin), Peter Whelan (bassoon), La Serenissima. Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 1.10.2016. (GPu)

La Serenissima: photo credit - Eric Richmond.
La Serenissima: photo credit – Eric Richmond.

Vivaldi – The Four Seasons (Manchester version)
Caldara – Sinfonia in C for 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings and continuo
Vivaldi – Concerto in C (RV 465) for bassoon, strings and continuo
Torelli – Sinfonia in C (G.33) for 4 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 violins, 2 cellos, strings and continuo

The poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), who spent much of his adult life in Italy, once declared a preference for Swansea Bay over two of Italy’s most famous locations, writing “The Gulf of Salerno is much finer than Naples, but give me Swansea for scenery and climate”. I live in hopes that the organizers of the Swansea Festival will one day take these words as a hint to programme a concert of Neapolitan music. While I wait for that to happen (?), I can report with pleasure that the Swansea Festival of 2016 opened with a concert devoted (largely)  to the music of another Italian city – Venice. The baroque ensemble La Serenissima, led by Adrian Chandler, takes its name from one of the cognomens or epithets regularly applied to that city: La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia (The Most Serene Republic of Venice). Since its foundation in 1994, Adrian Chandler’s ensemble has specialised in the baroque music of Italy (and of Venice in particular), with Vivaldi as its central figure. In this concert they played a programme made up of two works by Vivaldi (one very familiar, one rather less so), plus one work by the Venetian-born Antonio Caldara (who seems to have spent most of his working life away from the city of his birth) and one by Giuseppe Torelli (born in Verona, who largely made his musical reputation in Bologna, particularly through his work at the basilica of San Petronio in that city, one of the finest large churches in northern Italy).

The Brangwyn Hall is (dis)graced by the presence of 16 huge and vibrantly coloured paintings (covering about 2,000 square metres of wall) by Sir Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), celebrating the beauties of the lands and peoples of the British Empire. They divide opinions a good deal (I loathe them, my wife and many others like them). For me they are a distraction when the hall is used for concerts. The acoustics of the hall are, in themselves, good. The hall was, for many years, before the opening of the Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff, regularly used by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales as a venue for recordings. It is, though, a pretty big space, too big, in truth, for a baroque ensemble of chamber orchestra proportions. I was seated halfway back in the hall (a hall sadly only half full) and, initially, in the first few movements of The Four Seasons the experience was rather like listening to a recording made with microphones placed too far from the performers. Too much detail was lost. But, as tends to happen, my ears gradually adjusted to the sound (I am sure that the music’s familiarity meant that my mind supplemented what my ears could actually hear), and by the time we reached ‘Winter’, I was no longer troubled or distracted  by this difficulty. In any case the rhythmic drive of the ensemble had been clear all along, as had something of Adrian Chandler’s clarity of line> Still, I was unable to hear very much of the poetic expressivity they doubtless brought to The Four Seasons, as they have when I have heard them play the work before, both live and on CD. Friends spoke to me about this ‘acoustic’ problem after the concert, and were still doing so in the interval of another concert, in a different venue, three days later (review to follow), so it wasn’t just a product of my ageing hearing!

The interval followed The Four Seasons, and all the three works in the second half involved the addition of wind and/or brass instruments to the strings of the first half, which made for a more comfortably audible sound. Caldara’s Sinfonia in C for 2 oboes, 2 bassoons (though only one was present here), 2 trumpets, timpani, strings and continuo certainly packed an aural punch of a different order from the preceding Vivaldi. I was pleased to hear Adrian Chandler, in introducing the piece, speak of Caldara as “an unduly neglected composer” (a view I share) and observe that “without him the music of Handel would have been quite different”. Such a judgement can only fairly be based, of course, on a knowledge of much of Caldara’s considerable output (not least his many oratorios), but even on the evidence of this single, relatively short Sinfonia, it was easy to hear anticipations of, for example, the way Handel writes for trumpets. Of the three movements of this Sinfonia, the first carries no tempo marking, the second is marked andante piano and the third allegro. The work began quite radiantly and a delightful passage for unaccompanied oboe and bassoon came as a lovely surprise (it is a long time since I last heard the piece, but this performance of the work made me scurry home to listen to more Caldara). The Sinfonia is a subtle work, sophisticated and inventive, both melodically and (especially) texturally. A real treat.

So, too, was Vivaldi’s Concert in C (RV 467) for bassoon, strings and continuo, in which the soloist was the excellent Peter Whelan, one of our best baroque bassoonists (though he also plays the modern instrument and its repertoire). Whelan has recorded a number of Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos (he wrote almost 40) with La Serenissima, but not, I think, this one. As is the case in more than a few of Vivaldi’s concertos for the instrument, one of the two fast movements seems to be designed, at best, as a display piece for the soloist or, at worst, a rather cruel test of the soloist’s breath control and technique. Here that movement is the opening allegro. Unsurprisingly, Whelan ‘passed’ the test, but even he wasn’t able to convince the listener that there was very much of musical substance (rather than technical display) in the movement. The ensuing andante, on the other hand, is quite gorgeous, a real gem. The (almost) breathless rush of the first movement is replaced by slow, deeply poetic writing, the lyrical solo part being played with ravishing beauty by Whelan, in what was, for me, the highlight of the whole concert. Although a good deal of agility is again demanded of the soloist in the closing allegro, it is more truly part of a developed musical argument – certainly as played by Whelan and La Serenissima.

A rousing conclusion to the concert came in the form of Giuseppe Torelli’s Sinfonia in C (G.33) for 4 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 violins, 2 cellos, strings and continuo. Torelli was one of the best and most prolific composers for the trumpet (though he was a string player himself) in the baroque era, composing more than 30 concertos for single and multiple trumpets, as well as a number of other works, such as this one, in which trumpets play a prominent role. This particular Sinfonia seems to have been composed at some point in the last seven years of Torelli’s life – he died in 1709. Though the trumpets get most of the best music in this Sinfonia, there are also some exquisite passages foregrounding, at various points, the two oboes, the two cellos and the two violins. By now my ears had adjusted sufficiently to be able to fully enjoy Torelli’s writing for the strings.

Once one had come to terms with the acoustics of the hall (or, more precisely, with the relationship between the acoustic and the relatively small orchestral forces up on the stage) this was a very enjoyable (and, in an understated way, quite an instructive) concert.* As such it was a good opening to a Festival programme which promises quite a lot more fine music, with performances by the likes of The Brodsky Quartet, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Louis Lortie and others.

Glyn Pursglove

*Though Swansea is far from over-endowed with musical venues, I wonder if, say, the Taliesin Theatre on the Singleton campus of the university, where some Festival concerts are scheduled, might not have been a better choice for La Serenissima?

1 thought on “Mismatch of Performers and Venue Robs Interesting Concert of a Little of its Gloss”

  1. When I was a student in Swansea in the 1980s, the Brangwyn Hall used a side stage for concerts given by smaller ensembles such as string quartets and piano trios. The width of the hall, in effect, became its length, with rows of seats at right angles to their usual position. This arrangement brought the audience closer to the performers and produced a more focused sound.
    Personally, I like Frank Brangwyn’s panels. Without them, the Hall would be a big grey box.


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