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Swansea Festival Of The Arts 2009(4) - Berlioz, Hoddinott, Debussy, Saint-Saëns: BBC National Orchestra of Wales/François-Xavier Roth, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 10.10.2009 (NR)

: Roman Carnival Overture
Hoddinott: Taliesin
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Saint-Saëns: Symphony no. 3, ‘Organ Symphony’

This concert was notable for the première of Taliesin, the last orchestral work completed by Alun Hoddinott, who died in March 2008. It was commissioned for what would have been his 80th birthday earlier this year, and it was fitting that it should have had its first performance in Swansea, the city in whose environs he spent both his formative and his final years - and in the Brangwyn Hall, where, as Geraint Lewis remarked in a pre-concert talk, Hoddinott would have heard live orchestral music for the first time. This early-evening taster event also featured members of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales playing Hoddinott’s String Trio, opus 1, so we had both the opening and the closing of his career; the trio, composed when he was 19, around the same time as his celebrated Clarinet Concerto, was similarly spiky, confident, energetically and invitingly lilting. It certainly left me hoping that someone would soon embark on a serious revaluation of Hoddinott’s writing for string ensembles of all kinds.

itself, effectively a one-movement symphony, massively unfolded from a four-note motif, rising or inverted. There were intriguing varieties of harmony and pulse, and bouts of almost Holstian merriment among more shadowy episodes. It was also a very busy work, using the full range of orchestral resources, with the percussionists in particular having virtually to run from one instrument station to another in their efforts to keep up. As with several other symphonic pieces by Hoddinott, there was a sense of the musical material being constantly redistributed between different sections of the orchestra in a kind of dialectical or argumentative pattern – appropriate perhaps to the figure of Taliesin in his mythical incarnation as a spirit of mutability. But there was also something overly restless and frustrating about this continual fading in and out of shapes and colours, something which began after a while to sound formulaic, a technical ploy rather than the result of any inner momentum or real necessity. I would like to hear the piece again to see if I’m wrong.

It was a clever idea to place Hoddinott in a programme of French orchestral music: his favourite kind, flamboyant and vital, and the strongest influence on his own musical thinking. And the National Orchestra of Wales is these days such a potent outfit, the equal of any in the UK and many beyond, blessed with a clutch of infectiously dynamic conductors – François-Xavier Roth on this occasion - and fully at home in this extrovert repertoire. The Berlioz overture’s climaxes were thrilling, blazing acclamations; the Debussy breezier, less languid than usual. For reasons I can’t fully fathom, I always expect to find the Organ Symphony of Saint-Saëns hackneyed and saccharine, and am always stupidly surprised by its vigour and inventiveness and strong architectural command. There was more cunning programming on show here as well, as this work also opens with a four-note motif that never sinks far beneath the surface thereafter. Only in the final movement, when the organ blares out as if Louis Napoleon had just made an entrance, do things start to spill over into mid-19th century excess, and something strident and self-recommending forces its way in where grandeur was clearly intended. Otherwise all the piece needs is the passionate advocacy this orchestra was so eager to give it.

Neil Reeve

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