Nigel Jarrett reviews a performance of Sinfonia Cymru, featuring a range of music for strings including works by Strauss, Bach, Haydn and Tchaikovsky.
There are few professional orchestras whose remit extends to breaking ranks and pursuing the smaller-scale chamber music repertory. Sinfonia Cymru has long been doing so as part of its public commitment, groups of musicians being hived off to appear, for example, at Wednesday lunchtime recitals held at the Riverfront Theatre, Newport, one of its regular touring venues when at full complement. This autumn, it has opted for chamber music pure and simple as its main offering, first at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, then at Pontyberem Memorial Hall and finally at the Riverfront.* What it may have forfeited in terms of audience expectation, it made up for in seriousness of intent and, at times, irreducible brilliance for an orchestra of its sort.
Founder-conductor Gareth Jones had no direct input into its programme of Richard Strauss, J S Bach, Haydn and Tchaikovsky, and in one sense the decision to allow the orchestra’s leader, Bartosz Woroch, to play and direct was a means of profiling a musician who, by his example, has engineered a leap forward in Sinfonia Cymru’s approach. Already a professor at the Guildhall and a dedicated chamber player, he has for three years as leader performed a role within the orchestra itself almost equal in importance to that of Gareth Jones as chief baton-wielder and principale hominis. The relationship between the leader and the regular conductor is important in exerting additional authority among rank-and-file members. Woroch wasn’t badly needed, but he was needed at a time when the orchestra membership was fluctuating less and less. Its stability owes much to his galvanising qualities.
They were evident throughout this programme, in which he controlled events without making his influence too obvious. When it was so, the music always veered towards the extremes of quietude and exuberance in places where it might have been expected and in others where it might not have. In the ‘Sextet’ from Strauss’s opera Capriccio, the initial flourish was quickly supplanted by a desire for intimacy of almost fireside character, reflecting the restraint with which Strauss used the orchestra for the opera proper and that feeling of the autumnal which pervades the composer’s later compositions. As a prelude to this concert it mirrored in its use of violins, violas and cellos in pairs the prelude to the opera itself, though its gilded close, following the livelier development section, was not where Woroch and his colleagues finally arrived.
Far from winding down, as Strauss did in his work, the six players re-formed for the final item, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, and carried it as far away from the composer’s familiar slough of despond as it was possible to conceive. It was the more remarkable for displaying the string sextet as a distillation of a full string orchestra and taking advantage of the exposure it involved for each musician. A small ensemble on the rise in this way and keen to sustain the onward rush of the music might have lost itself in unchecked exuberance but, by and large, Woroch’s inspiration left no gap between himself and the rest except perhaps in parts of the final brio, where the textures, constantly aflame, threatened to unravel and burn themselves out. The difference between the two book-ending pieces – Strauss’s sonata-form evocation of the 18th century and Tchaikovsky’s passionate memoir of place rather than time – would have suggested an all-sextet programme, perhaps consolidated by either the Opus 18 or 36 of Brahms, even though it might have left everyone gasping. As it was, the six further dissolved into three (Woroch, Nolan and Benn) for a string trio transcription of some of Bach’s Three-part Inventions for keyboard, and four (Woroch, Lovie, Lewisohn and Morris) for Haydn’s Quartet in D, the sixth of the Op 33, so-called Russian, quartets.
While the nostalgic leaf fall of Strauss’s piece vindicated movement downwards, this decrease in numbers on the platform was less happy, partly because, in the generally upbeat mood of the evening, the temptation in the Bach, a popular though not entirely convincing re-modelling given the music’s keyboard provenance, was to create dynamics where they were not supported musically. Others might have received a different message given that Bach left so much open to expressive nuance. There is a version for two violins and cello but this one, with the viola replacing the second violin, at least added some tonal variety. Dynamic contrasts, sometimes uncompromising, were reserved for the additional items, not least the Haydn, with its sombre and operatic second movement contrasting with the scherzo and its end-of-bar stresses plus the cheerful trio it encompasses. There was a sense of an orchestra out to prove that it can be all things to all audiences, and maybe that’s what one came away with: the realisation that within its ranks there’s a gushing sextet, a studious trio intent on microscopic examination and a quartet fully conversant with what Tovey called ‘the lightest of all Haydn’s mature comedies’ and no doubt happy to dig deeper, brows furrowed, with later Beethoven.
The programme here was inventive, despite the reservations foregoing. It demonstrated something that scarcely needs repetition: that this is a talented orchestra big on confidence and broad in adventure and taste, with a leader who is raising its stature and giving it a more fibrous quality.
* You can hear Sinfonia Cymru tonight, Fri Oct 16, at the Pontyberem Memorial Hall, 7.30 pm and tomorrow, Sat Oct 17 at the Riverfront, Newport, 3.00 pm.
Header photo of leader, Bartosz Woroch, courtesy of Sinfonia Cymru.
Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, October 15 2015
Richard Strauss: Sextet from Capriccio
J S Bach: Three-Part Inventions
Haydn: String Quartet in D, Op. 33 No. 6
Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence
Bartosz Woroch (violin, director), Kirsty Lovie (violin), Lucy Nolan, Jenny Lewisohn (viola), Steffan Morris, Daniel Benn (cello).
Nigel Jarrett is a writer and critic and a former daily-newspaper journalist. He won the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and the Templar Shorts Prize. He has published a novel; a poetry collection; and two volumes of stories, the first, Funderland, being praised by the Guardian, the Independent, the Times and several more.