St David’s Hall, Cardiff, December 2 2015
Royal Northern Sinfonia
Guitar: Craig Ogden
Director: Bradley Creswick
Prokofiev: Symphony No 1 in D, Op. 25 (‘Classical’)
Barber: Adagio for Strings
George Harrison (arr.): Here Comes the Sun
Tárrega: Recuerdos de la Alhambra
Gary Ryan: Rondo Rodeo
Mozart: Symphony No 36 in C, K. 425 (‘Linz’)
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez
Among the musicians to have stepped colossus-like on to the platform at St David’s Hall is the guitarist Andrès Segovia. It was late in life, his dexterity had begun to wane and he was becoming introspective, the three possibly related. But there was more to it than that: the lone guitarist and the cavernous modern concert hall were not made for each other; indeed, they represent the polar opposite of a cathedral organ in a cramped subterranean space. Despite the case made for the hall by acousticians on the eve of its opening in the early 1980s, when visitors were sent into the gods to hear the pages of a book being turned down below, there is no way of throwing the sound of a classical guitar into its fastnesses.
Depending on the surroundings, Segovia’s heirs have found a solution: subtle amplification. When Craig Ogden walked on stage for the Rodrigo concerto in the second half he admitted to having left his microphone in the dressing-room. He meant the small pick-up device placed inside the guitar on such occasions and connected to a mini-speaker. Ogden, deputising for the indisposed Miloš Karadaglić, was surely doing only what the Montenegrin would have done had an injured hand not prevented his turning up. Purists baying for acoustic at all costs remain blissfully unaware of how much tinkering with wattage goes on in the concert hall and opera house these days. In any case, it’s a way in the Rodrigo of balancing the forces; not even a judicious composer and a chamber orchestra of fewer than forty players performing with discretion can help burying the soloist now and then, especially at times when he (in this case) is at his most intensely chromatic.
Apart from the music, the programme also said a lot about the odd status of the guitar and guitarists in the context of symphonic repertoire – that’s to say, there’s not much of it. Karadaglić is sparkling in the firmament, being also known by his mononym ‘Miloš’; Ogden is an established international soloist and principal lecturer in guitar at the Royal Northern College of Music. Yet the former intended playing what his publicity described as ‘a short mini-recital’ in addition to the concerto and any encores that might have been justified. To be cynical, that could have been construed as a preemptive strike against the possibility of the audience’s failing to call for more. Ogden stuck with this plan but got the encores in first, as it were, his solo stint consisting of three items and a brief lecture-cum-workshop. For players of an ubiquitous instrument, albeit in other modes, classical guitarists sometimes seem inexplicably self-conscious, with Ogden explaining how the fast tremolo effects of Tárrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra were accomplished – lots of speeded-up practice with the fingers, basically – against the melody-making thumb, perhaps one reason why for Karadaglić it would have been a non-starter on the night.
The first item was an arrangement of George Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun and the last a brevity called Rondo Rodeo by Ogden’s pal Gary Ryan, assistant head of strings at the Royal College of Music. More rodeo than recurrent, it (of course) required the performer to explain how its various sound effects were created. Imagine Nigel Kennedy, once known as ‘Kennedy’, explaining glissandi and pizzicati at every concert. Hang on though; perhaps we can. (I was at a concert when Kennedy playfully asked if there were any music critics in the audience who could remind him how many sharps there were in A major. Of course I knew.)
Dwelling on these matters takes nothing away from Ogden’s clarity and flair and, being in control of his portable electronic apparatus, his keen sense of balance. What we got was a forward guitar sound, as engineers put it, complemented by the orchestra’s unblemished sheen. In making the orchestra as accommodating as possible, Rodrigo undersold it, though its bubbly rhythms and opportunities for exchanges mitigate the tendency of the guitar to wend its own way in what always threatens to sound like a conflict of styles. It’s never wise to report audience behaviour but the applause at the end of the second movement was too prolonged to suggest that it represented unbridled joy rather than a mistaken idea that here the concerto ended. So much for music’s bleeding chunks, which many believe to be the body unsundered, though one gobbet with its tatters stitched is Barber’s Adagio for Strings, once a string quartet’s slow movement but now a concert piece in its own right. The orchestra and its energising director and leader Bradley Creswick treated it as such, providing the music with, as it were, an expansive self-suficiency and dynamic contrasts that its original setting as part of a whole does not immediately suggest.
Among relatively short items, the Mozart’s ‘Linz’ symphony became the meatiest. Written at breakneck speed for a concert given at the invitation of a prince, it is by that token alone miraculous, even by the standards of Mozart, the serial miracle-perfomer. Its slow introduction and other characteristics are direct links to Haydn, who in turn was a connection to the Prokofiev symphony, with which this concert began. Considering Creswick’s volatility, the orchestra played both with a deal of lofty refinement, though drawing attention to darker feelings below the surface in the Mozart, and to the humanity bound up in Prokofiev’s wit and effervescence, confirmed that it missed little of substance. In this familiar chamber repertory the RNS and others of like accomplishment have spent more time than most in getting the balances right. On a night when balance, in matter and manner, threatened to be confounded – Ogden’s ‘real’ encore, with the orchestra, was Piazzola’s Libertango – it was reassuring to identify a constant.