Two Concerts at the Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
Sinfonia Cymru / Swedish Wind Ensemble / Camerata Nordica
Amy Corkery / Angela Givolo / Joonas Asikainen / Virgo Veldi
Italian Moods through Time – October 5 2014
Rota – Small Musical Offering for wind quintet
Rota – Nonet for wind quintet and string quartet
Daniela Terranova – Asleep Landscape (UK premiere)
Respighi – Il Tramonto for mezzo and string quartet
Sciarrino – Due arie notturne dal campo: arr of two arias by A. Scarlatti for sop and string quartet
Respighi – Antique Airs and Dances
Small Nations Big Sounds – October 6 2014
Watkins – Three Welsh Songs for strings
Sibelius – Kuolema
Boden – Murmurations for double string orchestra (world premiere)
Pavel Hass – String Quartet No. 2, Op. 7
Grigorjeva – ‘Prayer’
Martinů – Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani
Collaboration has always been key to the work of Sinfonia Cymru. From Catrin Finch to Ballet Cymru and Llŷr Williams, the ensemble’s diverse list of recent and future co-performers is impressive – and so too is the number of pioneering initiatives they have undertaken. Last year, for example, saw the launch of UnButtoned; an ongoing drive to ‘develop new ways of experiencing classical music.’ This October, the focus has been on Europe as musicians from Sinfonia Cymru are currently participating in an international showcase, ‘Emerging Classical Talent in the EU’. As part of that, the Sinfonia teamed up with other leading ensembles and soloists from participating nations to spearhead an exciting festival here in Wales at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Dora Stoutzker Hall: ‘Small Nations Big Sounds’.
The three concerts featured Sinfonia Cymru in full or extracted string quartet alongside two ensembles from Sweden, together with soloists supported by the Estonian-based Pille Music Fund and Italian ‘Rodolfo Celletti’ Belcanto Academy. Artistic Director for the festival was the Sinfonia’s Guest Leader since 2012, Bartosz Woroch; a Polish violinist selected for representation by the Young Classical Artists Trust in 2011, and who has already built an impressive international career. In these concerts, Woroch not only continued to prove an inspirational leader of the Sinfonia and now its Quartet, but an innovative programmer, offering a feast of self-described ‘hidden jewels and true delicacies’ combined with premieres of new works.
The theme of the second concert (October 5) was ‘Italian Moods through Time’, and the Swedish Wind Ensemble made a spirited beginning with Nino Rota’s Small Musical Offering for wind quintet. Rota, who died in 1979, is a composer whose music most people will have heard without realising as he created countless film scores for Fellini, Visconti and others, including Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. His Offering, and the following substantial Nonet, for which players from the SWE were joined by the Sinfonia Cymru String Quartet, gives the lie to any misplaced notions of film composers being somehow inferior to their more concert-oriented fellows. Both works are beautifully written and thoroughly engaging; the Nonet in particular is full of melodic invention, wit and colour, as well as structural ingenuity. Here, the young Welsh players complemented their Swedish colleagues with playing of vivacious, muscular lyricism, setting the tone for a concert which had more than a dash of inverted ‘spaghetti western’, so to speak, as the two national ensembles championed in co-creative style little-known Italian gems.
The UK premiere of Daniela Terranova’s Asleep Landscape (2014) brought the formidable strings of the Camerata Nordica onto the stage, matched in intensity and control by soloists, soprano Amy Corkery and saxophonist Virgo Veldi. Terranova’s is the kind of piece which stands or falls by the strength of its performance. Here, it proved beguilingly atmospheric, with a subtle use of glissandi, pizzicato and oscillating harmonics, combined with breathy vocalising and alternating snatches of short vocal phrase. But it was Corkery (amongst excellent players) who made the strongest impression, as a promising young singer with a fine, properly supported voice, and a gently commanding onstage presence.
In the second half, Corkery teamed up with the Sinfonia String Quartet for Salvatore Sciarrino’s Due aria notturne dal campo, an arrangement of two arias by Alessandro Scarlatti. Sandwiched between two pieces by Respighi which also look back in time in very different ways, the work was performed with impressive commitment and musicianship. Yet for me it proved the weak link in the programme interpretively speaking; not surprisingly perhaps, as Sciarrino’s soundworld – even as arranger – is subtle to say the least, in its singular, rich delicacy and modernist-medieval shimmer.
Of the two Respighi works, the opening Il Tramonto for mezzo-soprano and string quartet (a 1914 setting of Shelley’s ‘The Sunset’) was delivered with loose-limbed Romantic panache by the Quartet, supporting a clear Carmen-in-waiting, mezzo Angela Giovlo. But it was the composer’s concluding Antique Airs and Dances which proved the dramatic highlight of the concert, performed with hair-raising electricity by Camerata Nordica. The violins and violas of the Camerata perform standing up, and their swaying bravura under Norwegian leader Terje Tønnesen brought a revelatory intensity to Respighi’s three suites, based on music from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and written between 1917 and 1932. This was Italian courtly dance refracted through a highly distinctive and very un-courtly lens, as if in some kind of über-physical dream, starting and ending in stillness but visiting all sorts of fantastical, contrasting worlds of expression in between. Really amazing stuff – and only possible to experience in the heat of live performance.
With the Camerata in particular having set a very high bar in this concert (and sorry to have missed the first of the series, which focused on Central Europe), I was intrigued to hear the festival finale on October 6, ‘Small Nations Big Sounds’. If anything, this evening the energy and drive stepped up a gear across the board, culminating in the most extraordinary rendition of Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani I have ever heard. The meaty programme combined Czech, Finnish and Estonian composers (the latter via Crimea), but with an important nod to the host nation in Huw Watkins’ Three Welsh Songs for strings, and the world premiere of a new commission (from Tŷ Cerdd and Sinfonia Cymru): Murmurations by Mark David Boden. Both Welsh pieces were satisfying in different ways, and were performed extremely well.
The Watkins opened the concert, weaving traditional Welsh tunes into a vibrant, post-Romantic tapestry. Woroch led the Sinfonia Cymru strings with flair from an attacking start, coaxing bite and tenderness in equal measure from his 17-strong ensemble. Their vigour and warmth carried over into the ensuing Kuolema to make an enjoyable whole of a somewhat hotch-potch piece comprising six scenes of incidental music, composed by Sibelius for a play in 1903, and subsequently much revised. Here, Amy Corkery rejoined the Sinfonia to impress once again with her range and control, together with baritone Joonas Asikainen – a well-rounded voice if a shade underpowered – plus two clarinets and percussion, idiomatically played.
Boden’s Murmurations brought the Sinfonia and Camerata strings together for the first time this evening, conducted with lithe purpose by James Southall. Before the premiere, Southall thanked Boden for the piece, and the performers’ enjoyment of it was palpable as they collectively took flight, like the birds of the work’s title, in fluttering, oscillating ‘balls of energy’, to quote the composer’s note. The interplay between sections – and indeed between orchestras – was beautifully handled by Boden and players alike, building on a simple but effective harmonic texture with scurrying semiquaver figures to create a sense of constant movement and yet stillness. A broad, asymmetrical theme eventually emerged before subsiding into an ambiguous, whistling conclusion which left me keen to hear the piece again.
After the interval, there were yet two substantial works to come before the Martinů. Here, the Camerata took the reins, firstly with a fiery orchestral performance of Haas’s String Quartet No. 2 Op. 7 (1925). I confess I’d been mildly disappointed to realise it was Pavel Haas rather than the unrelated spectral composer, Georg Friedrich Haas, on the programme. But all trepidation was instantly banished by this knock-out performance of the vastly underrated Czech. ‘From the Monkey Mountains’ is a subtitle which got Haas into ethnic hot water in 1920’s Moravia – and with horrible irony, given his later murder as a Jew by the Nazis. But the Camerata did his experimental spirit proud with their potent cross-rhythms and sheer unrelenting vitality.
For the ensuing ‘Prayer’ by Galina Grigorjeva, the mood softened, but with no loss of intensity as saxophonist Virgo Veldo produced a performance of exquisite feeling in tandem with the Camerata. I suppose there were shades of Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble here in the work’s rich, breathy microtones against sustained and gently evolving chords – albeit with strings rather than voices. But the piece was tautly written, and the solo part – notated rather than improvised – had an integrity and purpose which was movingly conveyed; I can recall the ambience even now as I write, and hear the vocalised sounds.
Yet it was the evening’s final tour de force which left me reeling. These days, the term ‘neo-classical’ tends to have disparaging, pastiche and/or old-fashioned connotations – and Martinů is not only oft-dismissed as a neo-classicist, but a patchy one at that. However, his Double Concerto is a masterly fusion of baroque design with 1930s anxiety and despair, all wrapped up in brilliant counterpoint. The combined forces of Sinfonia Cymru and Camerata Nordica under Southall delivered it with breathtaking subtlety yet physical punch. Indeed, their performance had all the compressed power and aggression of a virtuoso martial art, with its constant swerving and driving, then hanging back and circling before finally unleashing the full ‘Wild Night’. This was not so much an internal battle – orchestra to orchestra, piano to percussion – as an impassioned, joint cry of rage and anguish in which one could somehow picture Martinů raising a defiant fist, rather than giving in to hopelessness, at the oncoming storm of World War II. It was a ferocious conclusion to a wonderful concert – and an ongoing international festival from which nothing but good can come for an enriched and empowered Sinfonia Cymru.