Innovative concert in Cardiff only a partial success

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Reich, Gershwin, Colin Riley: Freddy Kempf (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales  /Matthew Coorey (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 17.2.2023. (PCG)

Freddy Kempf

Maurice RavelLa vallée du cloches [orch. Percy Grainger, 1944)
Steve ReichCity Life (1995)
George GershwinRhapsody in Rivets (1931)
Colin RileyHearing Places (2022-2023), world première

This interestingly contrasted programme began with a six-minute item not included in the original published schedule: Percy Grainger’s orchestration of Ravel’s movement La vallée du cloches from his piano suite Miroirs. I hesitate about the term ‘orchestration’, because this hybrid belongs really neither in the orchestral nor the chamber repertoire. The strings are limited to single players, and there are no wind instruments at all, but the extensive percussion section includes a whole range of gamelan-like tuned instruments. There also are two pianists who spend some time exploring the interior of their instrument armed with xylophone sticks; the resulting gentle susurration would be close to inaudible in a large concert hall, or with larger orchestral forces. Here, however, in the resonant acoustic of the Hoddinott Hall, the effect was elusive and charming. We are extremely unlikely to encounter this beautiful setting in the normal course of events, so its inclusion was most welcome.

Steve Reich’s much more boisterous City Life used much the same combination of instrumental forces. There also was a phalanx of clarinets and untuned percussion, plus some pre-recorded spoken voices and sound effects which were carefully timed to form part of the overall rhythmic and thematic texture. Some early minimalist scores have proved over the years less revolutionary than they at first appeared, while their elements of sheer repetition have become tiresome. But that is emphatically not the case with this nearly forty-year-old piece. Its experimental techniques are still as engaging as they were when they were totally new. Matthew Coorey proved to be an ideal conductor. He sensibly gave the orchestra distinct cues in advance of each change in the repeated textural repetitions, and was rewarded with a performance that exuded confidence and engagement. The spoken voices too were precisely timed and inserted through stereophonically spaced speakers that enhanced their contribution without ever quite entering the sunlit realm of comprehensibility. The programme notes by Paul Griffiths also sensibly supplied the subtitles of the individual movements, explaining their origins and purpose. At the same time, the onward progress of the continual musical flow gained a real sense of unified momentum which carried all before it in the most exciting manner.

City life was also reflected in Rhapsody in Rivets, one of several proposed title which Gershwin supplied for the work intended as a successor to the highly successful Rhapsody in Blue. It was eventually published under the simple description of Second Rhapsody. The work achieved nothing like the popular acclaim of its predecessor, and nowadays seems to be ranked among the composer’s misfires, rarely performed. It has to be said that the neglect is hard to fathom in a performance as good as this. The work scores over the Rhapsody in Blue both in its more classical construction (much of the material grows organically from the opening bass fanfare figure on the solo piano) and the frequently startling modulations which often break free from the jazz origins of Gershwin’s style, developing into grandiose climaxes scored lushly for a full romantic orchestra. I was slightly startled that Freddy Kempf and Corey introduced an unwritten silent pause immediately before the first orchestral entry, but this may well have resulted from the operation of the usual Gershwin habit of developing ‘performance practice’ after his music had already appeared in print: both Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess are riddled with such examples. At all events, the performance seemed totally authentic – and wonderfully involving.

Unfortunately those adjectives could not be applied to the world première of Colin Riley’s half-hour Hearing Places. The basic idea of the piece, outlined in the composer’s extensive programme note, was a series of seven independent movements (all given subtitles) depicting various elements of the Welsh rural and urban landscapes, and unified by the overarching theme of the environmental damage inflicted by humans on their natural surroundings. This praiseworthy objective was enhanced by a series of sound and film recordings projected behind the orchestra to illustrate the various scenes: Steel and steam (an iron works belching out clouds of smoke), Wind rattle (lanyards beating on a yacht), Pale rain with birds (a seascape from Laugharne), and so on.

Much of the problem with the work as a whole sprang from these images. Presumably in an attempt to avoid the atmosphere of a documentary travelogue, the filmed scenes were deliberately kept static. The cameras maintained a single angle during each movement, and the only contrast came from the changing effects of light (there were a lot of sunsets and sunrises here). Even when there were moments of action on screen, as with the sudden flight of distant birds nearer to the camera in Pale rain with birds, there was no reflection in the music. On the contrary, often the picture abruptly faded into darkness for no apparent reason, only to re-emerge a while later unchanged in a similarly unmotivated manner. In the movement Out of the machinery this was made into a positive virtue, as the disjointed images entered into a contrapuntal interplay with the clattering orchestral commentary. But even here the results were less than ideally managed; there were, for example, the sudden flashes of light clearly intended to coincide with the detached final chords failing to properly synchronise. This problem had already arisen at the end of the first movement, when the visual image lingered momentarily after the sound of the orchestra had abruptly ceased.

Nor were the pictures themselves always ideally chosen. The sixth movement, Hive, gave us a series of electronically altered images taken from a building high above Cardiff’s new Central Square. As the title indicated, it was clearly intended to underline the similarity between bustling humanity and insect colonies. The film, though, only served to demonstrate how remarkably few people there were around in the city centre at the time when the footage was shot. The composer’s programme note referred to the ambient ‘sounds of bikes, skateboards, building site drills and car horns’. In this performance, all that seemed to be inaudible, or drowned out by the orchestration. The final movement, Winter Sunrise, might have been expected to provide some kind of synthesis underlining the message of environmental concern. Instead, it furnished a distant picture of a rural church (with very prominently microphoned and artificial-sounding bird calls) which built to a clangourous and abruptly terminated climax of church bells. I understand that the work is to be broadcast at some future date on the BBC Radio 3 New Music Show, when obviously the visual element will be missing. Under the circumstances, it remains to be seen how much of the generically illustrative music will stand up to scrutiny when divorced from the images. And in the meantime one can only regret a potentially excellent concept undermined by a realisation and exposition which fell some way short of what appears to have been intended. No blame to either the orchestra or conductor, who did everything that was asked of them.

The remainder of the concert, it appears, will air on Radio 3’s Afternoon Concert. I would earnestly recommend that listeners make every endeavour to hear it either on its initial broadcast or subsequently on the BBC Sounds service. Incidentally, those who scrutinise such things may have been mystified by an announcement on the BBC National Orchestra of Wales website of a ‘digital concert’ given at this same hall on Thursday 16 February (the day before this live event) featuring what was advertised as the ‘world première’ of Alexander Goehr’s score The Master said. That was actually written and published as long ago as 2016. Even more eagle-eyed readers may recall that I reviewed the same performance on 29 October 2021. (That review, which dealt with the music and performance at length, can be found here.) This recording was nevertheless announced on the site as ‘part of the BBC NOW 2022-23 season’. Although one welcomes the chance to hear again concerts from earlier years, it might be preferable if the actual source material were indicated.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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