New work by Sarah Lianne Lewis is a success for BBC NOW in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sarah Lianne Lewis, John Woolrich, Ravel: Timothy Ridout (viola), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Finnegan Downie Dear (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 10.12.2021. (PCG)

Finnegan Downie Dear conducts the BBC NOW

Sarah Lianne Lewis (b.1988)Creatures of dust and dreams (2020-2021), world premiere
John Woolrich (b.1954) – Viola Concerto (1993)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)Mother Goose: ballet (1908, rev. 1911)

The standard BBC Radio 3 slot for their afternoon concert seems to have modified its character since the onset of the pandemic. The programme had generally been a live or recorded relay of a single event, with recordings of related material to make a full length. There has, of necessity, been a distinct change in approach. Miscellaneous items are strung together to make a ‘concert’ which, whatever its variety, frequently lacks unity, with sometimes grotesque contrasts of performers and medium, and with a heavy influx of chamber or instrumental music. This afternoon programme, broadcast as one of a pair of live relays, was a most welcome exception, despite the late-minute substitution. (Tippett’s rarely-heard and knottily intellectual Second Symphony was replaced by Ravel’s better-known blend of impressionism and neo-classicism in his Mother Goose – although Radio Times continued to list the Tippett.)

The concert began with the world premiere of Sarah Lianne Lewis’s Creatures of dust and dreams, the orchestra’s composer affiliate. She presented it in her programme note as a reflection on ‘our inevitable human frailty and vulnerability’ while at the same time describing the music as playful and exuberant. The opening did indeed seem exuberant, explosive even, but the music soon subsided into whirling microtonal figurations. Now, microtones are a dangerous tool in the hands of a composer. Too often they can simply sound as if the orchestra is playing out of tune, and – ironically enough – the more accurately the microtones are rendered, the stronger this impression. But here they became fully justified as an evocation of the ideas of dust and dreams, forming dimly glimpsed shapes which emerged from the textures only to dissolve again. The composer’s programme note drew our attention to the clarinet multiphonics, which similarly blended into this atmosphere.

The social distancing in the orchestra led to a clarity of sound where the clouds were numinous rather than overcast; the impressionistic woodwind and string figurations built up effects similar to the opening of the final scene in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë. There were other effects: the battered double bass rhythms, and even a beguilingly whispering harp tremolo which confirmed the adage that anything in the orchestra can be made audible if the composer permits. Those effects emphasised the rhapsodic element in the music. I should perhaps declare an interest at this point (Sarah Lianne Lewis was for several years a fellow committee member of Composers of Wales), but sceptics need not take my word for it. This very considerable composition is available from BBC Sounds for a further thirty days. The audience gave the composer a reception that was much more than simply polite.

John Woolrich was also present in the hall for a new performance of his Viola Concerto from nearly thirty years ago. Steph Power wrote the programme note but the composer himself, in comments quoted there, freely admitted: ‘my concerto is really a cycle of seven bleak and brooding songs-without-words’. However that may be interpreted, song elements appeared to be in short supply during the opening sections. The composer’s descriptions of ‘soft and gentle colours’ notwithstanding, the effect was often over-strenuous even without the presence of heavy brass and percussion. Only after the halfway mark did the songful presence of the viola begin to make its mark, and even then there were two extended passages where the soloist was consigned to silence. The score was freely modelled on citations of music by Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Schumann and Monteverdi.

One must acknowledge the considerable dangers in the construction of music through a collage of borrowings. Berio makes it work in his Sinfonia, where the intention is satirical or humorous, but too often one can be left with the uneasy feeling that the passages between the quotations are less impressive than the nuggets which they surround. Here, at any rate, such nuggets were hardly noticeable, apart from the ubiquitous Beethoven quotation that linked the various sections, and a couple of bars from the opening of Act III of Tristan und Isolde. That was all just as well. The programme note informed us that the personality of the music ‘doesn’t rely on the listener recognising the quotations’. Subtitles for the various ‘songs’ aided with orientation, although Placido e il mar was not placid by a long chalk. After the Tristan citation, the chorale was again noisy but gave way gracefully to an extended final section where the repetition of a single viola phrase faded into silence. Timothy Ridout managed this – and the whole work – with delicacy and poise, and never fell into the danger of becoming over-insistent. Hubert Culot, in a review of the 2001 recording of the concerto, described it thus: ‘A truly moving piece that vastly deserves wider currency.’ That hope does not seem to have been noticeably fulfilled.

Mother Goose was played here in Ravel’s revised balletic version of the score. Its interpolated interludes feature some highly impressionistic orchestral effects to offset the poised delicacy of the original material written for piano duet, and the movements have been reordered. I find the revisions effective, especially in the emphasis placed on the pictorial elements in the music, but in this performance these dramatic passages, while delivered with pinpoint accuracy, sometimes pulled their punches. The double bassoon in the dialogue between Beauty and the Beast, for example, seemed to be getting ready for his upward shift to solo violin harmonics by the display of a certain reticence, even before the harp glissando had accomplished the transfiguration. And the final Jardin féerique seemed to move with a sense of barely perceptible onward progression, which somehow contradicted the rapt stillness of contemplation that Ravel so clearly implies.

Ravel always had a weakness for rare keyboard instruments; just consider the problematic piano lútheal in his opera L’enfant et les sortilèges. In two movements here, he specifies a keyed glockenspiel, presumably the species of instrument originally employed for Papageno’s bells in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I would be interested to hear the effect with the specifications followed. Even by Ravel’s time it had become usual to substitute a more agile and responsive modern celesta for Mozart’s chosen instrument. His ‘jeux de timbres (à clavier)’ had become a rarity which has over many years been replaced by an ordinary glockenspiel played with sticks, even though this requires some simplification of the written notes. By the way, Mozart clearly meant the keyed glockenspiel to be distinct from the celesta, which also appears in the score.

The orchestral playing throughout was exceptionally responsive. The instrumentalists seem to be adjusting to the effect of social distancing with a sound more integrated than in the two concerts at this venue which I reviewed a month ago. BBC Wales are shortly to finalise and announce a series of programmes for the New Year. In the meantime, I expect to hear more of Finnegan Downie Dear, who last year was the winner of the Bamberg triennial Mahler Competition (previous winners include Gustavo Dudamel). His flexible approach to new music paid ample dividends, especially in the riot of colour he evoked in Sarah Lianne Lewis’s piece.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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