Technical Excellence and Uncomplicated Enjoyment from the Galliard Ensemble

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ferenc Farkas, Gustav Holst, Luciano Berio: Galliard Ensemble (Kathryn Thomas, flute; Owen Dennis, oboe; Katherine Spencer, clarinet; Richard Bayliss, horn; Helen Storey, bassoon). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 13.1.2017. (GP)

Ferenc Farkas – Antique Hungarian Dances
Gustav Holst – Wind Quintet in A flat, Op.14
Luciano Berio – Opus Number Zoo

This was my first concert of the new ‘Spring’ season at RWCMD in Cardiff and it made for a delightful overture, as the Galliard Ensemble gave their audience a programme high both in technical excellence and uncomplicated enjoyment.

If we are talking of beginnings and overtures, and given that this was a lunchtime concert, I hope it will not be deemed in any way disrespectful to say the Antique Hungarian Dances of Ferenc Farkas made a perfect amuse-bouche. I am trying to choose my words carefully here because Farkas is precisely the kind of composer who does not tend to get the respect he deserves. His exceptionally thorough training and his extensive practical experience as a répetiteur, chorus master, and teacher (his students included Ligeti and Kurtág), made him a musician of the very highest competence, with a profound technical and instrumental understanding of his craft. Perhaps he lacked the very highest qualities of individuality and originality. It is not easy (though I haven’t heard more than a fraction of his voluminous output) to name any single ‘masterpiece’ which might make his name more famous. But his work, in my experience, unfailingly displays great assurance and craftsmanship (there is much to be found and heard at a large website devoted to Farkas.

The Antique Hungarian Dances (written in 1959) are certainly at the miniature end of the scale; the longest of the five movements takes well under three minutes to play, the shortest less than a minute and half. The original musical material comes from anonymous seventeenth-century sources, in which Farkas began to take an interest in the 1940s. Since writing this original version for wind quintet, Farkas has made more than ten arrangements of the music for other instruments – such as for solo harp, for flute and piano, guitar, brass quintet, saxophone quartet, and oboe and string orchestra.

It is not hard to explain the popularity of this charming music. It is delightfully tuneful throughout, rhythmically various and full of joy (though not without its slightly ‘darker’ moments). The opening ‘Intrada’ begins with an engaging fanfare of sorts and, in this original version, Farkas’ mastery of instrumental colour (something he may have learned in part from Respighi, with whom he studied between 1929 and 1931 in Rome) is immediately evident. His understanding of the possibilities of each instrument and how they can be blended and balanced is so perfect as to bring an immediate smile to the face. The elegantly ‘grave’ opening to the second movement (‘Lassu’) is full of unpretentious dignity and, in its allusion to the czardas (the ‘lassu’ is the slow introductory section of a czardas) is perhaps the most strikingly ‘Hungarian’ passage in these dances. The third movement (‘Lopockas Tanc’, which, a Hungarian-speaking friend tells me, means ‘Shoulder-Blade Dance’!) dances vivaciously throughout; Kathryn Harris gave a splendid account of the prominent part for flute. In the fourth movement ‘Chorea’, one was very conscious of the artistry with which Farkas exploits both top and bottom pitches of each instrument’s range, the whole being an object lesson in such matters, without ever feeling primarily didactic in its fluidly slow lilt. I was particularly conscious of the tonal beauty of Katherine Spencer’s clarinet in this movement. The title of the final movement (‘Ugrós’) is related to the Hungarian for jumps or jumping and denotes a kind of ‘leaping dance’. The kind of vigorous energy that such a title implies is certainly very evident in Farkas’ music here, though, characteristically, that music is always fully controlled and ‘correct’. The whole suite is both technically sophisticated and glorious playful in its wit and technical cleverness. It is musical ‘fun’ at a high level, and the Galliard Ensemble certainly communicated both the musical sophistication and the fun, in their very accomplished and committed performance.

For all the implications of its title, Farkas’ suite of Antique Hungarian Dances doesn’t feel especially ‘Hungarian’ musically speaking; nor does quite a lot of the other music by him which I have heard. Though it has no title to suggest such a thing, Gustav Holst’s Wind Quintet in A Flat, has a stronger sense of musical nationalism about it, being more self-evidently ‘English’. The quintet was written in 1903, when Holst was in his late twenties; there is apparently a note in Holst’s list of his own compositions to say that the work was sent to the Dutch-born flautist Albert Fransella in 1914, but it seems never to have been performed. Indeed, it was altogether lost until a draft score turned up in 1952, followed by the discovery of Holst’s manuscript fair copy in 1978, among the papers of Lucy Broadwood, which had been recently deposited in the Surrey Record Office. Imogen Holst and Colin Matthews prepared a version for performance (abbreviating the first of its four movements by 44 bars and its second by 32, the cuts being made because the opening two movements were felt to contain a certain amount of redundant material, unlike the leaner and more concise final movements). This version received its first performance from the Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall in September of 1982.

‘Lost’ works which are rediscovered can often prove rather disappointing, but this is an attractive, if rather lightweight, piece, as several recordings, including one by the Galliard Ensemble, have shown. The quintet is very much of its period, which is not to say that it is in any bad sense ‘dated’, very broadly in the manner of English ‘pastorale’. When heard straight after Farkas’ mercurially inventive pieces, it is hard not to feel that Holst’s writing is somewhat lacking in timbral variety, in a real feeling for the distinctive tonal personalities of the five instruments.  For all that, the music is, formally speaking, well-crafted. It lacks that spark of true individuality of vison which was to characterise Holst’s later work in such a pronounced fashion.

Even so, it makes a pleasant listen; the first movement Allegro Moderato is fluent and quite subtle in its effects, the Adagio starts off rather sleepily, in a decidedly pleasant sense, but grows in life and spirit as it develops, while the third Minuet (in canon) lives up to its title, with some pleasantly courtly dance rhythms and a certain intricacy of musical thought. The final movement ‘Air and Variations’ is perhaps the finest of the four, with the flute presenting the attractive ‘air’ initially and the ensuing variations good natured and gracefully ludic, without ever being trivial. The Galliard Ensemble, without making any exaggerated claims or inflating the music, put the case for the work persuasively and cogently, so that one was left in no doubt that this was a useful addition to the available repertoire for wind quintet. Hardly a masterpiece then, but substantial enough to serve as a main course.

For dessert (!) we had Berio’s Opus Number Zoo, an early work, superficially sweet, but with an astringent aftertaste. Berio’s piece of music theatre was originally written in 1951 (premiered in Milan 1952), with a revised version being created in 1971 (premiered in New York, 1972). The original version was for a Wind Quintet and a Reciter. The revision (which was what was performed in this concert) dispenses with the Reciter and shares out the text (four poems by Rhoda Levine) between the instrumentalists. The texts are simple, quasi Aesopian animal tales and Berio, indeed, described the work as “an occasional piece”, “written for an audience of young people”.

Yet, what children might have heard as simple narratives must surely have felt disquieting for the adults in a Milanese audience in 1952, and Levine’s texts still have their disturbing aspects even now. Only some seven years after Mussolini’s dead body had been put on display, hung upside-down in Milan, some in the original audience must certainly have recognised the relevance of some of Levine’s texts. When, for example, the chicken in ‘Barn Dance’ (the first movement) goes to her death blind to likely consequences of succumbing to the dangerous attractiveness of the fox, or when, in ‘The Fawn’ (the second movement), the creature wonders at the “madness of men” who “blast all that is lively, proud and gentle” (which sounds like a dig at the Italian love of shooting, too), let alone the two ‘Tom Cats’ of the fourth movement, whose violence is mutually destructive. Nor, indeed, is it hard to see the relevance of much of this to life in the first month of 2017. The dominant musical idiom in this early work by Berio is a personal variant on the neo-classicism of Stravinsky, full of angular rhythms and phrases, for the most part ironically ‘cool’, but studded with ‘explosions’.

Particularly remarkable is ‘Barn Dance’, in which Berio’s music increases in pace and builds a powerful sense of growing danger, before climaxing as its final words are uttered: “That’s All Folks”. The use of the closing words of many a Loony Tunes animal cartoon helps to locate the work – where Aesop and Porky Pig meet, one might say. The much slower music of ‘The Fawn’ evokes the response of innocence (fawn or child?) faced with incontrovertible evidence of the destructiveness of human violence – “what can be the reason?”. The third movement, ‘The Grey Mouse’ confronts the facts of ageing and mortality in ways that must inevitably mean more to adults in the audience than to any children present. The mock heroism (“a tale of world renown”) of the ‘Tom Cats’ captures the futility of both petty jealousy and the human (especially the male) tendency to violence, the desire to possess what belongs to others. With hindsight it now feels like a striking anticipation of the fearful strategic doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD – never has an acronym seemed more apt).

It isn’t, I believe, fanciful to find these ideas in Opus Number Zoo. They are there, just as surely as those elements which justify the use of the subtitle which appears on the score: ‘Children’s Play’. It is the presence of both dimensions which gives the work its particular (and in many ways unexpected) richness and power. On this occasion it got a virtuosic performance (vocally and instrumentally) from the Galliard Ensemble, but as with the other two works they played in this lunchtime concert, the musicians’ individual and ensemble virtuosity served well thought-out musical purposes.

I was greatly impressed by the Galliard Ensemble in concert, as I have been when listening to them on CD. They characterise every piece clearly and vividly, without ever inserting themselves or their skill and ideas obtrusively between the listener and the score. The interpretive decisions are matters of subtlety, not of exaggeration, self-indulgence or excess. They are an important presence in the world of chamber music in these islands.

Glyn Pursglove

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