Vale of Glamorgan Festival 2020 preview concert

13/11/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Huw Watkins, Michael Zev Gordon, John Luther Adams, Helen Grime: Huw Watkins (piano), David Adams (violin and viola), Matthew Hunt (clarinet). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 12.11.2019. (PCG)

Huw WatkinsDream (2006), Speak Seven Seas (2011)
Michael Zev GordonFragments from a Diary (2005)
John Luther AdamsNunataks (2007)
Helen GrimeHarp of the North (2004)

The Vale of Glamorgan Festival for 2020, like its predecessors over a period of more than half a century, will continue to focus almost exclusively on the work of living composers. Next year, the two composers selected for featured attention will be the American John Luther Adams and the Welsh Huw Watkins. Works by both were featured in this preview concert introduced by the festival’s director John Metcalf. Watkins also played the piano in all five of the scores; the other two players joined him for three of them.

We began with Huw Watkins’s trio Dream written for the combination of piano, violin and clarinet, which the composer described in his programme note as ‘gentle, hypnotic music with more troubled outbursts’. The bulk of the music, as befitted its subject, was shadowed in a crepuscular twilight, and the sudden eruptions of nightmare formed an effective contrast. Watkins’s trademark technique of ending his pieces inconclusively, almost in mid-sentence, seemed entirely justified here.

The fragmentary nature of the seven movements by Michael Zev Gordon, which the composer described ‘almost as private jottings to myself’ proved more problematic. The many moments of silence during the movements themselves often made it difficult to determine precisely where one ended and another began. Apparently the movements originally had titles. They might have aided appreciation, but were not given in the programme (where the notes appear to have been directly derived from the composer’s own website). The attractive final movement was based on a descending pattern of disjointed chords which closely echoed a theme employed by William Mathias in both his Second Piano Sonata and the slow movement of his Harp Concerto as an image of the relationship between the Welsh landscape and the spilled blood that forged it. I presume, however, that any coincidence was accidental, as the programme referred to a title drawn from Rilke.

Huw Watkins then gave us two contrasted piano pieces. My previous acquaintance with the music of John Luther Adams has often left me with a delight in the basic material and thematic ideas, often unsuspectedly complex even when they appear to be relatively simple; at the same time I had a feeling that his development of this material is in danger of becoming somewhat over-extended. That was definitely not the case here, where the natural image of the rocky nunataks rising up from the icefields and glaciers that surround them was beautifully conjured up in a superbly and raptly envisioned manner.

Helen Grime’s Harp of the North, based on a similarly enchanted contemplation of nature drawn from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, was less effective in matching the imagery of the poem (quoted in the programme note) but the lyrical melody and filigree accompaniment was beautiful in its own right.

For the final item on the programme, Huw Watkins was joined by other two players. His piece was written for the Heimbach Festival, and employed viola rather than violin. The work was commissioned for performance in their turbine hall of a hydroelectric plant, and appropriately conjured up images of water ‘especially how diverse water can be – how powerful, but also how gentle’ to quote the composer’s own words in his programme note. The title Speak Seven Seas, drawn from a poem by Dylan Thomas, refers specifically to the rushing sounds heard when a seashell is held to the ear (although this analogy was not mentioned in the composer’s note). The result was kaleidoscopic in its changes of mood, although there were occasional practical difficulties occasioned by the use of a lower-stringed instrument, which placed greater emphasis on the clarinet to supply the upper thematic lines. Now the clarinet in its topmost octave is a recalcitrant instrument, and despite the best endeavours of Matthew Hunt some of the sustained stratospheric melodic lines could not but sound uncomfortable. (I know that the piccolo clarinet, pitched a fourth above the standard B-flat instrument, has enjoyed a reputation for stridency dating back to its orchestral employment by composers such as Berlioz and Mahler, but in fact it can produce more subtle inflections in this range.) The effect might have been better integrated into the whole in the presumably more cavernous acoustic of the hydroelectric plant where the trio was premièred. But all three players coped magnificently throughout with the music that they were given.

The scheduled performances in the Vale of Glamorgan Festival 2020 are listed in full on the festival’s website (click here). They will include substantial performances of works by John Luther Adams, including his orchestral Become Ocean, his recent string quartet Lines Made by Walking, and multiple percussionists in an outdoor performance of Inuksuit to be given in Cardiff’s Bute Park on a Sunday afternoon. All four of the final concerts will also include works by Huw Watkins, with the Welsh première of his symphony included in the final event given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (in the same programme as Become Ocean). I thoroughly look forward to what, as ever, is an enterprising, exciting and enticing programme.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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