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Bach, Metcalf, Takemitsu, Mendelssohn: Claire Jones (harp), Catherine Handley (flute), Carl Grainger (harpsichord), The Welsh Sinfonia / Mark Eager (conductor), The Temple of Peace, Cardiff 30.1.2011 (GPu)

Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D major, BWV 1050
Metcalf, Mapping Wales
Takemitsu, Toward the Sea
Mendelssohn, String Symphony No 9 in C major (‘Swiss’)

The programmes put together by Mark Eager for the concerts in which he directs the Welsh Sinfonia are generally innovative and can usually relied upon to contain some works which are not over familiar. Here a centrally canonical work began the programme, and began it by placing us at the heart of the North European baroque; a work (‘about’ Wales) by a Welsh composer followed and was in turn succeeded by a Japanese composer’s meditation on the sea. The programme closed with one of the youthful Mendelssohn’s String Symphonies, one written on a family visit to the Bernese Oberland and Lucerne. Of the four works, probably only that by Bach would have been familiar to all (or a great majority) of those in the audience. Most members of the audience would surely have been hearing some of the other music for the first time – or at the very least hearing some of it live for the first time.

The fifth Brandenburg – with the ever dependable Robin Stowell as solo violinist, Catherine Handley as flautist and Carl Grainger as harpsichordist – may have been the most familiar work presented, but this small-scale version still had about it an appealing freshness. The opening of the first movement was a little lacking in clarity and there was some imprecision in the playing, as if early nerves were being overcome, but the long central section had a rhapsodic serenity. Carl Grainger was assured at the harpsichord, and handled the demanding part with fair panache, not least in the complex figurations of the first movement cadenza. The reflective affettuoso writing of the second movement was played very persuasively by the trio of soloists, a performance beautifully proportioned to the relatively intimate space of the hall; the interplay of the instrumental voices, and the fugal writing in the closing allegro were played with energy and to exhilarating effect. There have, of course, been more dazzlingly virtuoso readings of this work; certainly there have been performances more comprehensively ‘historical’ and ‘authentic’; but the accomplished enthusiasm and commitment with which all concerned played the music on this occasion had a real attractiveness of its own.

John Metcalf’s Mapping Wales is an approachable and attractive work – as reflected in its performance history. Commissioned for the Millennium of 2000 it has had some forty or fifty performances since then, in many different countries; it has been recorded twice and broadcast on quite a few occasions. Originally scored for harp and string quartet, this arrangement for harp and small string orchestra is thoroughly engaging; a work in seven sections, shaped as what one might call six variations which finally assemble themselves, as it were, into an underlying theme only stated in the last section. The slow opening was played with an elegant spaciousness, the second section had a sense of a large landscape laid out before the eyes and the third was vivacious in its polyrhythmic patterns; the slow cello tune of the fourth section was well-phrased by Russell Davis and the fifth had a piquant oriental colouring; the attractive theme of the sixth led naturally, via some high harmonics on the strings to the Claire Jones’s eloquent statement of the ‘hidden’ theme. Metcalf’s relatively simple harmonic language and his rhythmic complexities were equally well served by the players of the Welsh Sinfonia and Claire Jones was an impressive and articulate presence throughout.

Toru Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea was commissioned by Greenpeace, as part of their Save the Whale campaign; the earliest version of the piece (written in 1981) was for alto flute and guitar; the version played on this occasion – for alto flute, harp and string orchestra – was prepared in the same year and in 1989 Takemitsu prepared a version for an unaccompanied alto flute and harp. The work’s three sections carry titles from Melville’s Moby Dick (‘The Night’, ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Cape Cod’), but these titles are surely more misleading than otherwise, for Takemitsu’s work has nothing of the ferocity or quasi-epic grandeur of Melville’s novel. Takemitsu seems always to have been fascinated by water, as reflected in such compositions as his very early Water Music and such compositions as Rain Tree Sketch 1 and II. The waters of Toward the Sea seem far quieter than those of Melville’s Atlantic, the music largely characterised by its delicacy and the subtlety of its shifts of timbre. The flute writing requires the performer to produce sounds more characteristic of the shakuhachi than the western classical flute, as well as to incorporate some of the methodologies of the western avant-garde. The results are very beautiful and gentle, and Catherine Handley proved a sympathetic interpreter of the piece, fluent and expressive. Mark Eager’s fascination with the music was evident in the attention he paid to both the detail and the larger scheme of Takemitsu’s score.

The programme closed with Mendelssohn’s String Symphony no. 9. The work is dated 12th March 1823 – not long after the composer’s fourteenth birthday. These early string symphonies works are still sometimes played by unsuitably large forces, but how much better they sound when played, as here, by just fourteen strings. There were one or two moments of imprecision in the performance, one or two slight problems of intonation, but they were not such as to detract from one’s real pleasure in the work (and doubtless reflect what must be the limitations on available rehearsal time for the orchestra.). The grave introduction to the first movement captured perfectly a kind of teenage solemnity, the pizzicato work of bass and cellos particularly fine. In the ensuing allegro of the first movement there was plenty of verve and joie de vivre. The slow movement is strikingly inventive (even if Mozart and Haydn can, naturally enough, be heard in the background) particularly in the way that the young Mendelssohn devises some very attractive textural contrasts, with the four-part violin writing at the beginning and the division of the violas, cellos and bass in the central section of the movement. There is clarity and feeling in this music which would be attractive under any circumstances and which is remarkable when one takes account of the age of the composer. The scherzo in some ways anticipates the fairy music Mendelssohn was later to write, though here there might perhaps have been a slightly greater transparency of texture if full justice was to be done to the music. In the closing allegro vivace Mendelsohn really seems to be finding a voice of his own, indebted to the music of his great predecessors, but distinctive. The fugal writing is outstanding, there are some lovely melodies, and some fine musical wit. Conductor and orchestra responded very well to this music and it made a satisfying conclusion to a thoroughly pleasant Sunday afternoon concert. As Christopher Marlowe wrote in one of his translations from Ovid; “Jove send me more such afternoons as this”.

Glyn Pursglove


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