The world premiere of McNeff’s song cycle during a Little Night Music in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom McNeff, Fauré, Schoenberg: Gavan Ring (tenor), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jac van Steen (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 16.5.2024. (PCG)

Gavan Ring in rehearsal with the BBC NOW

Stephen McNeffThe Celestial Stranger (world premiere)
FauréPelléas et Mélisande: Suite
SchoenbergVerklärte Nacht

Arnold Schoenberg wrote his Transfigured Night for string sextet, two each of violins, violas and cellos. Nearly twenty years later, he expanded the score to allow for performance by a larger body of strings. This culminated in 1943 in a final re-arrangement for string orchestra. The latter made up the second half of this interesting concert with the theme of ‘a little night music’.

I have always thought that Verklärte Nacht, while idiomatically written for solo strings, works better with a larger ensemble, but I have previously only encountered the later arrangement in performances by chamber orchestras. It was therefore particularly interesting to hear it delivered by full symphonic strings, including six double basses (the instrument absent in the original score). The resulting textures were not only excitingly full-bodied but emotionally wrenching. The rich-toned BBC NOW strings played so exquisitely that I would find it difficult now to revert to the somewhat scrawny textures of the arpeggio writing for solo strings in the final pages. Jac van Steen took over at very short notice from the originally advertised Joana Carneiro, who had been scheduled to make her debut with the orchestra. He relished every romantic gesture in Schoenberg’s early score. It was beautiful to hear and roused the audience to resounding cheers at the end.

In the first half, van Steen was an equally adept guide to Gabriel Fauré’s incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande. The early years of the twentieth century saw the play to be somewhat of a magnet for composers. There was Debussy’s opera (which Stephen McNeff, coincidentally enough, more recently arranged for chamber orchestra), and Schoenberg’s symphonic poem. And there was specially composed incidental music not only by Fauré (for the London production) but by William Wallace and most famously by Jean Sibelius.

Sibelius produced substantially more cues for the interludes and episodes of the play than his rivals. Even so, Fauré’s suite packs a good dramatic punch in the prelude and the concluding Death of Mélisande, and in the well-known Sicilienne, the third movement of the suite. Matthew Featherstone’s exquisite solo flute playing brought an expected touch of distinction to the performance. The filigree depiction of Mélisande at the spinning wheel in the La fileuse second movement was also delightfully fragile. One’s only regret was the omission of Mélisande’s song, which Fauré wrote in English and added specifically for the London production. Jac van Steen provided great satisfaction in the music of the published suite, and the final dying fall was moving in exactly the proper manner.

The programme began with the world premiere of The Celestial Stranger, Stephen McNeff’s song cycle commissioned jointly by the BBC and Radio Telefis Éireann. He set five poems, two by Thomas Traherne, one by Walt Whitman, one by Dylan Thomas and a final one by Hawaiian queen and poet Lili’uokalani.

The first song began promisingly with atmospheric mood-setting from the woodwind and brass, but almost from the first entry of Gavan Ring’s tenor it became apparent that there would be problems with the balance between voice and orchestra. McNeff, with his considerable pedigree in music theatre and opera, was considerate to a degree: the heavy brass (in the orchestra’s full-scale romantic body) were not allowed their heads during the vocal passages. Still, the sound from the accompaniment frequently overwhelmed the singer. This might have been the result of insufficient rehearsal time van Steen had with the players, but there were questionable passages. For example, oboes and strings in the final song were allowed to cover the voice.

When he could be heard, Gavan Ring was clearly concerned to project the text. To do so, however, he allowed himself far too much freedom to change his vowel sounds for the sake of audibility. The effect, even when his voice could be well heard, was that the actual words remained unclear much of the time. One was grateful for the texts provided in the programme. These were generally only made available online, only in the afternoon preceding the concert, so most of the audience could not have gathered any of the import of the texts. This was not helped by the often oddly accentuated rhythms of the setting itself, or the sometimes unclear and unmotivated repetition of individual phrases or words.

Nor to be honest, did the poems themselves seem to have much unity of mood or purpose, despite an introduction which attempted to furnish a narrative trajectory for the cycle. We were told that the sequence was intended to portray the experience of an extra-terrestrial alien who visits Earth, only to be repelled by the aggressive and destructive instincts of mankind and retreat again into the void. Nonetheless, the visionary ecstasy of Thomas Traherne’s two poems contrasted strangely with Walt Whitman’s lines ‘I see men marching’ and Dylan Thomas’s ‘The hand that signed the paper’. I suspect that the broadcast performance, with the singer more closely observed by the microphone, may go some way to resolving the problems of balance between voice and accompaniment. The comprehensibility of the actual words of the text will, I fear, remain an obstacle.

The concert is scheduled for broadcast on 7 July on BBC Radio 3 in their new afternoon slot Classical Live and will be available thereafter for a month on BBC Sounds. We were also advised that the performance was being filmed for future release on the BBC National Orchestra of Wales Digital Concert series, so it would be available indefinitely on their online platform. One hopes the latter format will have subtitles for the poetry set by McNeff.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

1 thought on “The world premiere of McNeff’s song cycle during a Little Night Music in Cardiff”

  1. This was a busy week in south Wales for Stephen McNeff. Two days after the concert reviewed here, his ‘Sinfonia’ was performed at St Elvan’s Church in Aberdare by the Rhondda Symphony Orchestra. Their enterprising concert of mostly little-known music by Welsh-born (or, in McNeff’s case, Welsh-raised) composers drew a capacity audience.


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