Swansea Festival Commemorates 50th Anniversary of the Aberfan Disaster


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Joseph Davies, Saint-Saëns, Geraint Lewis, Fauré: Louis Lortie (piano), Fflur Wyn (soprano), Neal Davies (baritone), BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales / Siân Edwards: (conductor), Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 8.10.2016. (NR)

Joseph Davies: The Shortest Day

Camille Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, op. 22

Geraint Lewis: The Souls of the Righteous

Gabriel Fauré: Requiem in D minor, op. 48

This Swansea Festival concert was billed as remembering the 50th anniversary of the disaster of Aberfan in which 144 people, 116 of them children, died when an unmaintained slag heap collapsed on to a primary school. The match between the music and the commemorative intention was perhaps slightly uneasy. In some ways the simplest and most direct tribute came when Louis Lortie played as his encore Ravel’s Pavane pour une infant défunte – beautifully judged all round here, whether or not the composer had any particular loss in mind, or merely liked the sound of the words in his title.

The evening opened with a newly-commissioned work written especially for the anniversary, The Shortest Day for soprano and orchestra, by the young Welsh composer Joseph Davies. It had a strong opening, with nursery-like themes being gradually fractured, and built to some quite shattering fortissimi (at times threatening to drown the fine singer Fflur Wyn and the texts by Rowan Williams). There were smart allusions to The Sound of Music as well as rather more scheduled ones to Myfanwy, and the highly-sophisticated orchestral writing caught a really interesting cusp between stridency and subtlety. It was certainly a piece to hear again. Geraint Lewis’s The Souls of the Righteous, written for the funeral of William Mathias, was more orthodox in its compositional style, appealingly heartfelt if not deeply imaginative, well-suited to its occasion.

By now we had heard Louis Lortie play Saint-Saëns. Lortie, one of the world’s great pianists, is also one of the numerous and select witnesses to the inefficacy of piano competitions, having famously come fourth in the 1984 Leeds competition. What an extraordinary list of also-rans Leeds can supply, let alone the other competitions! On one of the few opportunities I have had to hear Lortie, I would have preferred him to have played something more closely amenable to his wonderful singing tone, but one mustn’t grumble. Saint-Saëns Second Piano Concerto is a work so completely dominated by the soloist that at times the orchestral writing seems merely perfunctory – perhaps the big tune in the second movement excepted. Indeed, such are the concerto’s almost ridiculous technical demands that the sheer panache required to play it often appears to be its most notable feature. But where there was lyricism and refinement to be found Lortie unerringly found it.

After all this, Fauré’s Requiem had its own sustained and, in the In Paradisum especially, somewhat eerie serenity, a long way from the spasms of anguish in the Davies piece – although it wasn’t entirely clear whether the overall course of the programme had had a cathartic effect. The singing was clear, touching on beauty, and the playing a little understated.

Neil Reeve

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