United Kingdom Vale of Glamorgan Festival  – Adams, Fitkin, Watkins: Sophie Westbrooke (recorder), Paul Watkins (cello), Apollon Musagète Quartet, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tecwyn Evans (conductor). Vale of Glamorgan Festival at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 26.5.2017. (PCG)
John Adams – The Chairman Dances; Absolute Jest for string quartet and orchestra [first Welsh performance]
Huw Watkins – Cello Concerto [first Welsh performance]
Graham Fitkin – Recorder Concerto [first performance]
In my review last week of a previous concert in the Vale of Glamorgan Festival (click here), I mentioned the term ‘post-minimalist’ which had been employed by the New York Times as a description of one of the featured composers, noting that I was not sure exactly what the term was meant to mean. During a pre-concert talk before this final concert in the Festival, Stephen Walsh raised the same query, and although Graham Fitkin had to confess that he was not entirely sure he suspected that it was intended to convey the influence of minimalism on other composers whose work did not fall unequivocally into the ‘minimalist’ category (although this does not seem to have been what the New York Times meant); in that category he classified not only his own music but also that of John Adams – accounting for three-quarters of the programme in this concert.
Fitkin’s own work, a commission from the Vale of Glamorgan Festival here receiving its first performance, was something of a tour de force not only for the composer but also for his soloist. The eclipse of the recorder as an orchestral instrument during the early seventeenth century has usually been attributed to its limited carrying power, especially when compared to the transverse flute that superseded it; but, as anyone knows who has attended a school concert where recorders are featured, the smaller instruments in the family certainly do not suffer from a failure to make themselves heard. I suspect that the reason for the preference of composers for the transverse instrument lay more in the limited range of the recorder as an instrument – two octaves or so, of which the lower fifth is almost entirely inaudible over any more than minimal accompaniment (a problem, too, with the standard concert flute today). Fitkin in his Recorder Concerto managed to get over this obstacle by asking his soloist Sophie Westbrooke to move rapidly between a number of different instruments, and obviated the problems of audibility in the lower register by amplifying the sound – an effect that was generally subtly achieved here, although sometimes the boosting did not avoid sounding artificial, like a beefed-up sort of ondes martenot sound. Fitkin’s concerto adopted the structure, familiar from others of his orchestral compositions, of building up from slow beginnings to an increasing excitement at the conclusion, and this was reinforced here by the move from double-bass recorders (looking for all the world like abandoned packing cases punctured with random holes) to smaller and higher-pitched instruments for the more virtuoso passages in the closing bars. The whole concerto was also bound together by a sort of ‘motto’ consisting of a flutter-tongued note with an upward ‘flip’ at the end, heard at the outset on a bass recorder and returning some four octaves higher at the final cadence. All that was perhaps missing was a more extended lyrical section, but this might have interfered with the progressive structure of the piece. The composer took advantage of the recorder’s amplification to challenge it to confrontations with a romantic-sized orchestra including a full complement of heavy brass and percussion, and the results were thrilling in the hands of Westbrooke and a thoroughly committed orchestra.
There were plenty of lyrical sections in Huw Watkins’s Cello Concerto, first heard last year at the BBC Proms with this same orchestra under their principal conductor Thomas Søndergård and now receiving its Welsh première with the composer’s brother Paul once again in the role of soloist. Although the structure of the work was described as being in three movements, two slow ones surrounding a central scherzo, in fact all three movements comprised contrasted fast and slow sections; and the scherzo featured a much slower trio towards the end, with the more light-hearted material returning only briefly at the end. Once again here we were confronted with the problems of a reticent instrument confronted with difficulties in making itself heard, and this time without the benefit of amplification (the sound of the broadcast will doubtless assist home listeners to obtain greater clarity), even though the orchestra was somewhat smaller than in Fitkin’s concerto. Paul Watkins however relished the plentiful lyrical opportunities he was offered by his brother, and the opening of the finale had a plangent intensity which reminded me of Taverner’s Protection Veil in its sense of immediate communication and led to a thoroughly satisfying ending. It had less immediate impact than the Fitkin concerto which followed it after the interval, but I suspect it may repay repeated listening.
The two works by John Adams which also featured in the programme were less satisfactory in this performance. Tecwyn Evans was proficient at keeping the music on the move – although in The Chairman dances his acceleration into the final section was rather uncontrolled – and his steadiness of beat throughout paid dividends, but the results were less engaging. I know from discussions with various players that one of the real problems they encounter with minimalist scores is the nagging sense of danger that can arise from a possible mis-counting of the many repeated figurations they are asked to undertake, and the real benefits that can be felt if they can rely upon a conductor to give them indications as to when they should cease one repetition to move to another, or to bring them in after a long rest when the cues which they might draw from other parts may not always be immediately audible. So far as I could see the conductor here gave them little assistance, leaving them to their own devices and innate professionalism; nor was the balance between sections of the orchestra all that could have been wished, with the heavy brass in the closing section of Absolute Jest threatening to overwhelm the strings and sometimes reducing the sound of the solo quartet at the front of the stage to near-inaudibility. Individual players, no matter how skilled and experienced, cannot always judge the relative weight of the volume they are producing, and must perforce rely on the conductor to make adjustments to such matters if necessary during the course of performance. I noted last November when reviewing another performance by this orchestra under the baton of the same conductor that I had made the comment that ‘pianissimi seemed to be in rather short supply’, and I am afraid to say that the same criticism could be levelled at the playing throughout this concert. In the Watkins and Fitkin concertos this produced exciting results; but in the Adams works on the other hand it resulted in a lack of light and shade which did the music itself no favours, and the sense of fun which should surely permeate both pieces was largely missing as a result.
Nevertheless the concert as a whole was well-contrasted and well-planned, making a most satisfactory conclusion to this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival; and once again one has to comment upon the faith audiences continue to display for the judgement of the Festival’s director John Metcalf, in presenting to them works by living composers which they trust will be worth their while to hear. The auditorium was very nearly full, which even the BBC themselves can only manage on the most exceptional occasions. The concert is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 29 May (and will be available for a further month on the BBC iPlayer); even those who heard the first performance of the Huw Watkins concerto last year will welcome the opportunity to makes its acquaintance again, and the Fitkin concerto will expand the horizons both of those same listeners, and of those who would like to see the recorder take a more central role in the music of the 21st century.
Paul Corfield Godfrey