A Grace Williams discovery at the tumultuous conclusion of the BBC NOW season in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom R. Strauss, Mozart, Grace Williams: Alice Neary (cello), Rebecca Jones (viola), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Ryan Bancroft (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 1.6.2023. (PCG)

Ryan Bancroft conducts the BBC NOW © Yusuf Bastawy

Grace Williams – Concert Overture
Mozart – Symphony No.39 in Eb major, K543
R. StraussDon Quixote

This was the final concert in the 2022-2023 season of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. It began with Grace Williams’s Concert Overture, written in 1932 and receiving its first outing in nearly ninety years – with support from ABO Trust’s Sirens programme. The composer presumably thought confidently that in 1951 she put paid to any further performances of the work: she burned the orchestral parts and wrote on the manuscript ‘not worth performing’. It is, in fact, the first of her orchestral works to have survived. I suspect that the single previous performance – by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Welsh National Eistedfodd in 1935 – may well have been an absolute shambles. That seems unfortunately to have been the fate of so many premières of her music. The sheer difficulty of much of the orchestral writing even challenged the expert playing of the current generation of BBC NOW players. Mind you, the fizzing and bubbling humour of the music was distinctly short-breathed; of contemporary works in the early 1930s, one was reminded of Walton at his most acerbic. Even so, it does not deserve the oblivion to which the composer condemned it. One hopes for a recording before long. The BBC NOW have been collecting previously unknown or neglected Williams scores, which could make up a very interesting programme.

Ryan Bancroft conducts cellist Alice Neary and the BBC NOW © Yusuf Bastawy

The virtuosity of Williams’s orchestral writing appeared in many ways to challenge Richard Strauss’s undoubted wizardry in Don Quixote. He matched Cervantes’s picaresque with characteristic music and a lively sense of ridicule. Ryan Bancroft encouraged the orchestra to give the grotesque elements full play. Even the eruptive mf clarinet in the final bars was allowed to disrupt the elegiac mood with its startling full weight. The sheep might have bleated with greater atmosphere in other performances, but they sounded properly panic-stricken as a knight on horseback charges. The bassoon-monks whined petulantly at each other until put to flight in their turn. The wind machine whistled shrilly in the ‘journey through the air’ (although the instrument was not hidden from the audience, as Strauss perhaps prudently instructed). And the grotesque trio of bass clarinet, tenor horn and viola made the most of Sancho Panza’s down-to-earth nature. The aristocratic tone of Alice Neary’s cello presided over all this mayhem. Her evocation of an earthly paradise in Variation 3 was allowed to flourish in its full moonlit richness until the squire’s grumpy interruption.

Incidentally, Strauss’s description of the work as a set of ‘fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character’ does not mean (as Stephen Johnson implied in his programme note) that he adhered to the norms of variation technique. The individual episodes are more like miniature tone poems, ranging as they do from a mere few bars (Variations 7 and 9) to extended several-minute passages (Variations 3 and 5). The programme note could have also benefitted from greater detail. That would have helped the listener to engage with Strauss’s comic touches in the writing. Just consider the dripping water after the capsizing of the ‘enchanted boat’, and the ensuing prayer of thanksgiving as the pair give praise to God that they have not been drowned. The interweaving of Neary’s protagonist with the solo viola of Rebecca Jones and the solo violin of Lesley Hadfield was beautifully judged, and assisted by the placement of the complete viola section on the right of the stage.

Between these two showpieces, we were treated to a performance of Mozart’s Symphony No.39, which hearkened back with a vengeance to the good old days of big-band Mozart. We got a large contingent of violins – that would have gladdened the composer – who were able to project their lines with positively Beethovenian venom when required, and lend due emphasis to the often startlingly iconoclastic modulations of the first movement. Ryan Bancroft also encouraged the players to indulge in daringly romantic adjustments of speed and colour. They differentiated carefully between passages when heard in exposition and in repeat. The almost Klempererian Allegro in the first movement and the Beecham-like careful phrasing in the Andante led to a positively rustic minuet and a sparkling finale. Those who love period instruments and vibrato-free string tone might have loathed it; I thought it was marvellously engaging.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and will be available on BBC Sounds for a further month. The orchestra will be back in a couple of weeks to accompany the Cardiff BBC Singer of the World, but the repeat of this programme in Swansea on 2 June will bring the BBC NOW season proper to a conclusion. It has been a good year for the orchestra, finally freed from the constraints of distancing and isolation imposed by the pandemic. There have been a couple of misfires, as one would expect in any season. By and large, however, the orchestra has been fully restored to form and prime condition under Ryan Bancroft’s enthusiastic stewardship. His engagement is clearly visible in his presence on the platform for a good many of the concerts during the year. It is good to know that – despite his appointment as chief conductor designate of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, beginning in September – he will continue as principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. We look forward to an equally adventurous programme next season.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Leave a Comment