Sinfonia of London triumph in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Debussy, Gershwin, Walton: Martin James Bartlett (piano), Sinfonia of London / John Wilson (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 28.11.2022. (PCG)

RavelValse nobles et sentimentales; Boléro
GershwinRhapsody in Blue
DebussyLa mer

Those of us who live in South Wales and have a long memory will recall the days in the 1970s when Cardiff City Council effectively torpedoed a proposal to convert the old Capitol Cinema in the centre of the city into a dedicated concert venue; it had already seen use for that purpose. That was because they had already committed themselves to building a brand-new hall as part of their new St David’s development at the other end of Queen Street. (The Capitol Cinema site has become a somewhat down-at-heel shopping mall.) The present council are now considering a proposal to sell off St David’s Hall to a developer. The developer’s vaguely outlined plans do not appear to include the maintenance of the building in its role as the only large-scale concert venue in Wales’s capital city. One of the reasons for this act of cultural vandalism is the allegation that classical concert audiences in Cardiff are falling, but even if that were true – the figures are disputed – much of the blame lies with the council’s policies. I say more at the end of this review. In the meantime, one wishes that the council members had been present at this concert. It was played for a large and enthusiastic crowd who greeted the visiting orchestra with not one but two standing ovations.

The Sinfonia of London, as readers may well be aware, is a newish orchestra based in London since 2018. It has been hand-picked from freelance and other players for the principal purpose of recording under the baton of John Wilson. He has long been known for his espousal and promotion of compositions from the golden ages of Hollywood and American Broadway musicals. He had also already established a firm basis as interpreter of British music. The last concert he conducted in Cardiff had included one of the most superlatively balanced and paced performances of Vaughan Williams’s problematic Sea Symphony, all the more remarkable for the manner in which the playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra had been combined with an almost haphazard collection of choirs from various sources. Since the establishment of the Sinfonia of London, Wilson has embarked on a series of rapturously received Chandos recordings, giving SACD performances of various orchestral showpieces by early twentieth century composers. Three of the items on this programme in Cardiff had already been included in those earlier releases on disc, but the two new items were no less remarkable.

It should be noted that reactions to the Chandos recordings have not been universally favourable. Some American sources have not hesitated to accuse British reviewers of over-enthusiastic hyperbole. The dissenters seem to say that – although they grant that Wilson’s performances are superbly technically crafted and played – the playing lacks depth of engagement and emotion. One wishes the doubters could have been present at this concert. Even in the opening item, the fizzing Scapino overture which William Walton wrote as an orchestral showpiece for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, there were moments of sheer delicacy and nuance, especially from the violins, with their occasional wisps of melancholy emerging from the hubbub around them. This exuberant opening number made it immediately apparent that the enthusiasm of the orchestral playing was something quite exceptionally engaged.

By way of contrast, it was a splendid idea to let us hear an equally revelatory account of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. In a spoken introduction, the conductor described it as the composer’s most exquisitely orchestrated score of all. That was a big claim about the writer of the near-contemporary Daphnis et Chloë, let alone the apocalyptic vision of the dance in La Valse which was to follow half a decade later. But Wilson came close to justifying his assertion with a performance of delicacy and poise, which charmed and enchanted by turns. The playing was once again exquisite, especially from the woodwinds and high violins with their chains of ethereal harmonics.

In yet another change of mood, Wilson returned almost to home base, as it were, with a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in the full orchestral version by Ferde Grofé. The ‘home base’ means Wilson in his original territory as an interpreter of the music of the American jazz age in the 1920s and 1930s; even so, the performance had some surprises. Gershwin’s score is remarkably free of any indications of tempo – he clearly, as the pianist at early performances, tended to improvise as he saw fit – and even those that do figure in the score are singularly vague. The only record we have of Gershwin’s own intentions are the famous piano roll that he set down in the 1920s. They were the basis for a recording of the jazz-band orchestration by Michael Tilson Thomas, and it was clear that Wilson had studied this undeniably authentic tradition with care.

John Wilson and Martin James Bartlett

The big orchestral interruption after the first piano solo, marked ambiguously Tempo giusto in the score, took off at an incredible fast pace – as in Gershwin’s piano roll – with a ferocity that suggested Tom and Jerry in one of their more frenetic cartoons. Then the big rhapsodic solo tune towards the end luxuriated with a warmth and passion that went far beyond Gershwin’s laconic indication Andantino moderato. By comparison, Martin James Bartlett showed an almost classical restraint of touch, which served to set the jazz inflections into still greater relief. I need hardly add that the score was given complete, with none of the ‘traditional’ cuts that are still occasionally inflicted on it. This was one of the works on the programme which has yet to appear on a recording from the Sinfonia of London; I cannot wait.

The concert resumed after the interval with an equally scintillating performance of Debussy’s La mer. When I last heard the work in this hall in 2018, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales had made a conscientious attempt to comply with Debussy’s strict injunction: the passage for divided cellos in the central section of the opening movement should be played by no fewer than sixteen players. Here we were confined to the usual eight, with a consequent diminution in the breadth of sound. But this was a sole point of concern in a performance where nearly everything else went right. Wilson even restored the high trumpet passages in the finale (Debussy at one stage expunged them because he thought they were reminiscent of a once-popular melody). Without this fully justified inclusion the orchestral textures would be dangerously bare. One only wishes that Wilson had realised that Debussy’s injunctions at the end of the first movement Très lent… Retenu do not mean the same as accelerando. The effect was vulgarly excitable rather than the grand apotheosis of noon on the water. But the sound he conjured from the orchestra was superlative throughout.

As indeed it was in the final item on the programme, Ravel’s Boléro. In another spoken introduction, the conductor pointed out that a new edition of the score published in 2018 had reverted to Ravel’s original orchestral instructions. They include the addition of castanets and triangle in the closing bars, and the division of the side-drum rhythm (which underlies the whole length of the work) between two players situated to the extreme left and right of the stage. The latter amendmen is all gain; its vestige remains in the 1928 published score where the side-drum part is suddenly marked a2 (two players in unison) shortly before the end. The insistent tapping rhythm can become maddening in repetition and often leads to mistakes from naturally fatigued players. Here it suddenly becomes a real dramatic element in the whole as it switches from left to right and back again to match the changes of instrumental timbre as the music slowly gathers strength.

The entry of the castanets, too, serves to conceal a moment of real awkwardness in Ravel’s scoring: the lower strings are suddenly asked to change to pizzicato chords strummed across the strings in the manner of a guitar (and then return to normal bowing eighteen bars later) without even a moment’s respite to change the manner of playing. The solos from the saxophones and the trombones, too, had a real jazz swing to them which some more fastidious conductors seek to minimise; not here, where the music attained a real odour of elevated sleaze. The enthusiasm of the players, leaning eagerly forward and digging into their rhythms, became a real histrionic element in the delivery of the music. One wonders what those American critics, complaining of crisp efficiency at the expense of engagement, would have thought. The audience were in no doubt, rising to their feet for a standing ovation.

And, despite the nay-sayers from Cardiff County Council, there was an audience, and a very respectably sized one at that. If indeed there has recently been a reduction in the size of audiences for classical concerts at this hall – and I take leave to doubt that, having regularly attended concerts here for over ten years – over and above that which can obviously be attributed to the pandemic regulations since 2020, the responsibility must rest surely with the council themselves. The nearest car parks are some ten minutes’ walk away, so many of the audience – wishing to avoid Cardiff’s notorious traffic congestion – are forced to rely upon public transport to get into the closely-packed city centre. Cardiff has persistently failed to make any provision for tram or metro systems to allow easy access (proposed schemes have risen and fallen like ninepins over a period of forty years and more), so his means total reliance on a bus system. Some ten years ago, Cardiff responded to this contingency by demolishing their existing bus station entirely. Buses from outlying suburbs and rural areas now arrive at different points all over the city. And since the pandemic the situation has worsened, even connecting services which enabled passengers from the South Wales Valleys to access venues in Cardiff Bay have simply evaporated. That was initially described as a temporary measure but is now clearly intended to become permanent. This is also a problem for all the other local authorities in the vicinity.

An online petition has been set up to register complaints with Cardiff County Council and with the Senedd. I would urgently suggest that all those concerned about the proposals sign these petitions before plans becomes too far advanced. Fuller details can be found here.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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