BBC NOW play Grace Williams and Ralph Vaughan Williams

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Williams, Vaughan Williams: Madeleine Mitchell (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jamie Phillips (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 3.11.2021. (PCG)

Madeleine Mitchell (violin) with the BBC NOW in Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) – Prelude and Fugue Op.29
Grace Williams (1905-1977) – Violin Concerto (1950)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) – Symphony No.5 in D (1943)

I am not sure what – if anything – went wrong at the first performance of Grace Williams’s Violin Concerto in 1950. Whatever it was, it was enough for the notoriously depressive and self-critical composer to consign her score to a bottom drawer. It never re-emerged until well after her death, when the BBC revived it in 2006. It was scheduled to be played early last year and broadcast by BBC Radio 3 as part of a week of programmes devoted to the composer’s output. That fell foul of the pandemic lockdown, and we only now have had the opportunity to encounter the concerto in what appears to have been only its third-ever performance.

Depression admits of no reason, so it may be useless to speculate why the composer suppressed her score, but she may have been dissatisfied with its overall unity as a concerto. The first movement in particular has a real rhapsodic feel to it. Disparate material is combined almost in a wilful manner. At moments, the soloist seems to remember that display is expected in a concerto, and then almost immediately lapses into a more ruminative mood which allows much of the musical interest to focus in the orchestra. The instrumental forces required are unusually large for a violin concerto. Three trombones bring the total of brass to more than the sum of the woodwind, and this often consigns the soloist to a less than dominant role. The problems of balance were exacerbated by the social distancing imposed on the orchestra. The wind players and the heavy brass in particular made their presence very obviously felt throughout the extended movement. It will be interesting to see how the recording engineers manage this for the scheduled broadcast next week.

The opening movement may raise doubts but there surely can be none about the gloriously lyrical slow movement. It is based in part on a Welsh hymn tune, and other folkloric elements are also clearly present. They are superbly and imperceptibly integrated into one of the composer’s romantic landscapes, or perhaps seascapes. There are some delightfully ethereal orchestral touches; delicately lapping phrases from the divided violins support an ecstatic soaring line from the soloist. If the composer had wished, this movement could surely have been extracted for independent performance (on the lines of Gerald Finzi’s Introit from his similarly suppressed violin concerto). One can only complain of her heartlessness in denying us for so long the pleasure of hearing the music.

The finale seems positively light-hearted. It skips along rather in the manner of Grace Williams’s well-known Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes, and with some wry humorous touches to enliven the atmosphere. Madeleine Mitchell, as one might expect, proved to be a superlative soloist. Jamie Phillips and the orchestra clearly and thoroughly entered into the spirit of the music – as indeed they did in the symphony which followed after the interval.

Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony has in the last year almost become integrally associated with the emergence of British orchestras from the lockdown: think Sir Simon Rattle at 2020 Proms. The emotional charge of the music surely answers to an inbuilt spiritual hunger in audiences today every bit as much as it did in the days of the Second World War when it first emerged. Once again, the social distancing of the orchestra exposed the internal lines of the argument in sometimes unfamiliar ways, and subsidiary counterpoint was carefully and delightfully delineated. Never mind; Jamie Phillips never lost sight of the dramatic trajectory of the work. The slowly emerging excitement of the Preludio and the shadowy puppet-show of the Scherzo with its hobgoblin interruptions were given full measure. The string playing was simply glorious all around, with no loss of warmth occasioned by the extended spaces between the players.

The slow Lento, the emotional core of the symphony, can miss its mark if the conductor allows the curling lines to gain too much momentum too soon (the sought-after increased engagement is fatally counter-balanced by a loss of meditative stillness) and the composer’s careful and very precise instruction Un pochino più movimento is employed as a sanction for a more orthodox symphonic pacing. There was no such danger here. Phillips set an initial daringly slow speed, and carefully controlled the gradual acceleration towards the overwhelming climax with an impressive sense of majesty. Even the corrected timpani lines at the climax (in the original score they were printed a full bar too late!) struck home bodily with the right sense of conclusive force. The concluding Passacaglia allowed the tension to gradually relax towards a blissful conclusion which seemed to cast a sense of enchantment across the whole hall. For listeners who may perhaps have become over-familiar with the music – if there are such wretched souls – this performance will have served as a firm assertion of the stature of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth as surely his greatest symphonic achievement.

The concert began with Britten’s Prelude and Fugue, like his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge also written for the Boyd Need Orchestra but not matching that earlier work for sheer inventiveness. The melodic line of the prelude seems like a sketch for Glitter of Waves at the opening of Act II of Peter Grimes, and the conclusion is oddly inconclusive. Even so, it was well and incisively delivered by the reduced body of strings with their eighteen solo lines.

I am delighted that the soloist and conductor will return to the orchestra and venue on Saturday 6 November. That programme will feature Vaughan Williams and Grace William’s better-known Penillion, to be broadcast at a later date. This concert will be relayed on BBC Radio 3 in their prime evening slot next Tuesday, when doubtless hordes of Grace Williams fans will be standing by; of course, it will also be available online for a further month thereafter. Might we perhaps hope in due course for a commercial recording of the Grace Williams concerto? We were promised a release of her Missa Cambrensis after a BBC broadcast some years ago but, apparently because of technical concerns, it never actually appeared.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

2 thoughts on “BBC NOW play Grace Williams and Ralph Vaughan Williams”

  1. I am sure I was not the only member of the audience who visited YouTube beforehand in order to gain some familiarity with the Grace Williams Violin Concerto. Those who did will have found, in addition to the modern recording by Matthew Trusler, one by Yfrah Neaman dating from 1967 (with BBC Welsh under Vernon Handley), at odds with the story that following its premiere the Concerto did not re-emerge until 2006.

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  2. I first made the acquaintance of the Grace Williams Violin Concerto in the Matthew Trusler broadcast to which Mr Hogg refers; and I must admit that the 1967 performance by Yfrah Neaman was previously unknown to me, since it only appeared on YouTube much more recently. The provenance of that earlier recording is unclear; it was broadcast on Radio 3 (not ‘Music Programme’ as the YouTube information states) as the one and only item in a midday concert on 22 November 1967 when it appears to have been recorded specifically for that broadcast, and not given in a live concert (Radio Times gives no venue for such an event, and I could find no critical notice of any public performance). Presumably the composer allowed this solitary outing for the work before consigning it again to her bottom drawer along with her First Symphony, Sinfonia Concertante, and other substantial works of that period that she had decided to suppress – where it stayed until 2006. Mind you, the scrawny mono sound quality on the YouTube broadcast transcription hardly begins to do the music justice.

    I did not rehearse the sad performing history of the concerto at length in my review, being more concerned with the merits of the music itself and its welcome new emergence into the limelight. Hearing the broadcast relay again last night, with the subtle adjustment of the balance from the socially distanced microphones, makes it all the more clear that we urgently need a new commercial recording.

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