New British music from the BBC NOW in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Goehr, Grime, Gordon: Carolin Widman (violin), Mark Lewis Jones (speaker), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Catherine Larsen-Maguire (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 29.10.2021. (PCG)

Carolin Widman (violin) (c) Lennard Ruehle

Helen Grime (b. 1981) – Limina (2019)

Michael Zev Gordon (b. 1963) – Violin Concerto (2016-2017)

Alexander Goehr (b. 1932) – The Master Said Op.99 (2016), world première

Despite the more stringent anti-pandemic measures than elsewhere in the UK, Wales has for some reason had a higher proportion of infection than Scotland or England. At the time of writing, it remains unclear whether the hastily arranged BBC season of concerts scheduled for the Hoddinott Hall this autumn can be sustained – or at any rate whether the performances will be available for public attendance, let alone the presence of reviewers and critics. That makes this enterprising afternoon concert all the more welcome. It gave us two works written during the past five years and the delayed première of a new piece by the redoubtable Alexander Goehr, surely one of the last of Armold Schoenberg’s pupils still active as a composer.

Over the past thirty years and more, Alexander Goehr has been steadily but surely moving from his earlier serial style to a more personal fusion of modern idioms with modal inflections. Perhaps this adoption of a more user-friendly language has led to the growing withdrawal from engagement by some of those critics who once acclaimed him vociferously as a pillar of British modernism. At least, it might be hard otherwise to account for the total neglect of a substantial work by such a well-established composer, written and published in 2016 but only now receiving its world première. This is surely shabby treatment for an author whose earlier music was so earnestly sought and promoted by such superstars as Jacqueline du Pré. But then, I am afraid to say, this belated première went some way towards explaining the delay.

The Master Said is an extended setting – over half an hour – of seven slow meditations upon sayings of Confucius, followed by a brief allegro coda. Jo Kirkbride’s programme note acknowledged Haydn’s Seven last words as the model for the form of the work. The parallels were further underlined by the device of having the words of Confucius delivered by an actor before each movement. The difficulty of combining the spoken voice with orchestra was side-stepped: the textual interjections were unaccompanied. But the words themselves seemed to find no corresponding imagery in the music, and their content ranged from the pithy to the aphoristic in a decidedly frustrating way. The manner of Mark Lewis Jones’s rendering increased the frustration. The programme note described the texts as ‘intoned’. If literally observed, that might have served to give them a sort of hieratic style. Here, however, they were simply delivered directly into a microphone in a conversational tone, and the amplification in the hall was insufficient to act as a counterweight to the volume of the orchestral lines (this may well be rectified in the subsequent broadcast). It might perhaps have been better to jettison the vocal element, but this would only have served to place more emphasis on the musical set of slow variations, which at times seemed to be dangerously over-extended. The scoring for a large chamber ensemble also threw into highlighted relief some disjointedly strenuous trumpet and brass writing, and scrambled string pizzicato passages. Some phrases sounded perilously close to mistakes. Most incongruously, two close imitations of Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King on solo trumpet near the very beginning gave the (almost certainly incorrect) impression that pastiche was intended.

The playing of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales unfortunately tended to suffer from the spacing imposed around the players, which served to emphasise the solo lines and diminish the sense of blend. This was even more apparent in Grime’s Limina which opened the programme. The sheer volume of the wind declamation at the opening of this description of an ice waterfall (the title means ‘thresholds’) came close to the limits of acoustic overload, in a manner that conjured up the similarly raucous orchestra of Jón Leifs in his depiction of Icelandic landscapes. It was not until well past the halfway point through this ten-minute tone poem that any dynamic below mezzo-forte appeared to actually make an appearance, and the relative calm of the closing pages came as something of a relief. The programme note (again by Jo Kirkbride) made reference to linguistic inspiration from the 1963 novel The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas. It might have been of considerable assistance to the audience to have had this further explained and explored, giving some reason for the various effects which were projected at the ear. As it was, one had the uncomfortable feeling of listening to a film soundtrack for which the pictures and images were missing, and the thematic content was insufficient to fill the gap. As simply a depiction of frozen landscapes, the atmosphere failed to rival Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the passages of tuned percussion on marimba and vibraphone seemed to obtrude upon the texture.

I was delighted to discover between these two works a major new three-movement violin concerto by Michael Zev Gordon. Oddly enough, the frosty impression was more successfully conjured by the opening of the concerto. The stratospheric violin writing produced a real challenge to Carolin Widman’s forthright playing. It soared into the most strenuous passages with a sense of freedom and triumph which established the mood of ecstasy from the outset. The slow opening of the second movement had the sense of atmospheric richness which one encounters in Szymanowski’s violin concertos, and the dance-like rhythms elsewhere had a real sense of enjoyment. And there were also moments of extraordinary excitement, as when in the final section of the work a fortissimo downward slither on the orchestral violins was set against a rising chromatic passage from the soloist. There were occasional misjudgements of balance. The use of string bows on the cymbals was hardly audible; the device is rarely effective in an orchestral score, although charming in chamber pieces. Catherine Larsen-Maguire’s energetic conducting did not really bring out the contrasts between ff and fff passages in the orchestral writing. As in her interpretation of Helen Grime’s piece, one sometimes craved something slightly more delicate and variegated. Even so, the performance left me anxious to hear the work again, possibly in a studio recording. The account on the composer’s own website (presumably taken from the 2017 première, although the players are not credited) lacks the sense of acoustic warmth that I so clearly found in the performance here, with an artificially close observation of the soloist.

The audience in the small seating area of the Hoddinott Hall left available by the ‘socially isolated’ orchestral players was appreciative. Helen Grime and Michael Zev Gordon were present in the hall to receive their due rounds of applause. We were not told when the performance is actually to be broadcast but it will probably emerge on BBC Radio 3 as part of their new music series late on Sunday evenings. The Gordon concerto at least would seem worthy of a more mainstream slot.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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