BBC National Orchestra of Wales Launches Season of Modern Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Goehr, Woolrich, Watkins, Wigglesworth: Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Lesley Hatfield (violin), Rebecca Jones (viola), Alice Neary (cello), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jonathan Berman (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 31.1.2018. (PCG)

Alexander GoehrSinfonia
John Woolrich – Oboe Concerto
Huw WatkinsString Trio
Ryan Wigglesworth – Clocks from The Winter’s Tale

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales have been conspicuously unfortunate with their conductors over the past couple of weeks. Less than a fortnight ago, Ryan Wigglesworth had to substitute for an indisposed Xian Zhang at St David’s Hall for Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony and the world première of Huw Watkins’s Spring. At this concert he in turn succumbed to illness, and Jonathan Berman took his place at short notice. This was particularly to be regretted since the programme for the concert not only included Wigglesworth’s own Clocks but also since, as Huw Watkins informed the audience, he had also had a hand in the choice of works for the remainder of the concert.

Huw Watkins had always intended to include a work by his teacher Alexander Goehr in this pair of concerts where he explored music that has influenced him over the years, but it was apparently Ryan Wigglesworth who had suggested the Sinfonia, a piece dating from the 1970s, as worthy of attention. This one-movement work, scored for woodwind quintet, two horns and strings, seemed to me more to be in the nature of a sinfonietta rather than the full-scale symphonic work that the title would lead one to expect. After an opening when wailing woodwind and yielding strings seemed to conjure up an echo of Britten’s Billy Budd, the music seemed to lack any very obvious symphonic structure either, and the later return of some of the material did not appear to have functional purpose. At around the halfway point, a section of slower music brought some sense of purposeful onward movement, and a cheeky scherzo-like section featuring a prominent piccolo brought some sense of fun; still, the work as a whole failed to cohere, at any rate on a first hearing. It may be that Ryan Wigglesworth might have intended to bring some greater sense of unity to the whole, but the lack of any guidance from a programme note (of which more later) did not help.

John Woolrich’s Oboe Concerto, on the other hand, was a real tour de force. This might seem an odd word to use of an oboe concerto, a type of work usually featuring a reticent soloist in the context of chamber-like scoring; but this was a real humdinger of an outing for the solo player. Quiet passages contrasted with sections that seemed to explore the outermost limits of dramatic expression and sheer decibel content. Even Mahler’s hammer from the Sixth Symphony put in an appearance towards the end, and Woolrich was not content with Mahler’s niggardly use of it for a mere two or three blows. Nicholas Daniel was supported and reinforced by the three oboists from the orchestra (brought forward to the front of the stage) as well as a soprano saxophone, and the five players were well able to withstand the considerable furore that was released on them by the orchestra. At the same time, there was plenty of delicate and indeed beautiful playing by way of contrast; Daniel never allowed himself to sound overwhelmed by his surroundings. As will be gathered, this was a work that was not only musically satisfying but dramatically exciting; I am not sure how much of the latter element would come across in a recording or broadcast performance, but the live experience was highly enjoyable and brought cheers from a small but perceptive audience which included a considerable number of fellow-composers from Wales and further afield.

The inclusion of a chamber work in the programme was perhaps unusual, but as Huw Watkins observed it might have served ‘to clear the palate’. Indeed, his String Trio appeared to inhabit much the same sort of atmospheric world as his orchestral piece Spring which we had heard for the first time a fortnight ago: a slowly evolving melodic line, initially in the viola, decorated and adorned with more excited, and almost chirruping, commentary from the other players. My only regret was that, as so often with Watkins, the music seemed to come to an unexpected and almost arbitrary halt when one would have welcomed a more conclusive ending to what is a short but by no means inconsiderable work.

The final item on the programme was Clocks, an orchestral suite drawn from Ryan Wigglesworth’s opera The Winter’s Tale premièred at English National Opera last year. At the time, the opera seems to have received rather mixed reviews; some critics appeared to complain that the music was too protracted and lacking in emotional substance. Well, there was emotional substance in plenty here, especially in the last of the three movements which drew on material from the final pages of the opera; and after a somewhat disjointed start, the opening movement too gained in strength and momentum as it proceeded. The central movement, drawn from the dance sequences in Bohemia in the second Act of the opera, provided a good contrast even when during the closing pages they seemed about to burst bodily into the realm of the ritual dances from Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage. In the end, I wonder whether the adverse criticism of the opera may have arisen from dissatisfaction with Shakespeare’s original play, in which after all the most famous line is a stage direction. (It appears from the reviews of the opera that Wigglesworth’s own adaptation dispensed with the need for anyone to “exit, pursued by a bear”.) Or it may be that the opera orchestra, confined to a pit, were unable to invest the music with the dramatic and emotional charge which the orchestra here certainly managed to convey. It would have been interesting to hear the composer’s own interpretation, but Jonathan Berman certainly obtained the best from the players, even though they were clearly showing signs of tiredness at the end of a long evening.

Part of the reason for the length of the evening was the peculiar fact that the programme gave no information whatsoever on the music actually being played (not even the dates of composition). The written material was devoted entirely to the biography of the performers. This was obviously designed to allow for Nicola Haywood Thomas to conduct a series of interviews which explained to the audience the background of the music they were about to hear. John Woolrich excelled here, giving an excellent summary of his intentions in the Oboe Concerto, and Jonathan Berman assisted also with his explanation of precisely where Wigglesworth’s suite fitted into the Shakespearean scenario of The Winter’s Tale. Huw Watkins, however, whilst giving the audience some personal background, said very little about the actual music either of his own trio or the Goehr Sinfonia which is where a printed programme note would have been most helpful. As it was, the concert including these spoken discussions extended to over two-and-a-half hours, a long time when listening to unfamiliar contemporary music—and indeed for playing it. It is scheduled for broadcast on Radio 3’s Hear and Now programme on 17 April, and I will certainly make a point of listening to the music again on the BBC iPlayer service. A broadcast of the Woolrich concerto will never make the sheer physical impact of a live performance, I am afraid; but those who were less than impressed with Wigglesworth’s opera at the ENO would be recommended to listen to the music again in this concert suite, and they might find their opinions changing.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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