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SEEN AND HEARD UK CONCERT REVIEW
Martinù, Concerto for piano trio and string orchestra
Painter, Furnace of Colours, Op.71 (BBC Radio 3 commission: world premiere)
Lutosławski, Symphony No.3
This concert included a world premiere, a work that failed to put in an appearance at its intended premiere and a work that achieved major status from the moment of its premiere.
An enjoyable afternoon concert (recorded for future broadcast on Radio 3, split between the afternoons of 5th April and 16th May) began with the lost-and-recovered Concerto for Piano Trio and String Orchestra by Martinù. Written during Martinù's years in Paris - early in 1933 - to a commission from the Hungarian Trio it was rejected (unaccountably) by Martinù's publisher. (Another account has Martinù losing the manuscript as the date of the performance approached). Martinù promptly rewrote it as his Concertino for Piano Trio and String Orchestra - and this was played at the scheduled premiere. The ur-version disappeared and was forgotten about, until it turned up posthumously amongst the composer's papers. It was premiered some thirty years late at the Lucerne festival in 1963. Admirers of Martinù have every reason to be pleased at its rediscovery, for it is a fine work, a distinguished contribution to the relatively select tradition of the triple concert, and full of that astringent sweetness that so often characterises Martinù's 'French' works. Its wit and its exuberance were well articulated by the Atos Trio and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Jac van Steen, from the sprightly accents of the opening allegro to the momentum and drive of its final movement, which is one of Martinù's best re-writings of Baroque conventions, its canonical writing full of pleasantly tart harmonies. The Atos Trio also responded very convincingly to the beautiful yearnings of the andante and to their substantial contribution to the third movement, with a trio for the Trio framed within an orchestral scherzo. The whole work has about it an exhilarating fluency and joie de vivre - qualities well celebrated in this performance.
The concert closed with Lutosławski's Third Symphony. This was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lutosławski began to sketch ideas for the work as early as 1972, but didn't complete it until January 1983. It was immediately recognised as a major work - one reviewer of the first performance observed that "the 30 minute symphony is so dazzling in its originality, so powerful in its use of the orchestra's resources and so remarkable in its ability to communicate that a person had to think of it immediately as a 20th Century masterwork" (Joe Cunniff). Written as an uninterrupted single movement (though four distinct sections can fairly readily be discerned, so that there is a clear allusion to traditional symphonic structure), the work has about it that paradoxical presence of opposites so typical of major art - here the reconciled polarities include the violent and the tender, the public and the private and, in particularly interesting fashion, tightness of structure and elements of limited aleatorism for individual players. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales made a fine 1995 recording of the work, conducted by Tadaaki Otaka. The playing in this live performance was of a similarly high standard, and the fortissimo repeated Es that begin and end the symphony made a memorable impact. Whether handling Lutosławski's complex and turbulent masses of sound or his moments of delicate lyricism. Jac van Steen's control of the work was exemplary, though there were moments when transitions seemed less organic than they might have been. But this was an exciting reading of a fascinating work.
The actual premiere featured in the concert was Furnace of Colours by the Welsh composer Christopher Painter (b.1962). Painter studied at what was then University College, Cardiff under Alun Hoddinott. He was long associated with Hoddinott in many capacities. When the Hoddinott Hall was opened in Cardiff's Millennium Centre in 2009 Painter edited a volume of essays and reminiscences of Hoddinott, also entitled The Furnace of Colours: Remembering Alun Hoddinott. In it Painter wrote of how he had had "the great privilege and pleasure of knowing Alun for over 27 years as his pupil, copyist, publisher, and most importantly, friend". In a brief onstage interview (with harpist Catrin Finch) before this premiere, Painter spoke of the work as being the last of four dedicated to his memories of Hoddinott. As such it follows on from his third symphony, premiered in 2010, which was also grounded in a poem by Watkins (Fire in the Snow). As Painter acknowledged, Furnace of colours contains some echoes of Hoddinott, and is musically in direct line of descent from him, without being merely derivative. It takes the form of a setting, for soprano and orchestra, of a sequence of three poems by Vernon Watkins, first collected in Watkins's Affinities of 1962, under the full title of Music of colours: Dragonfoil and the Furnace of Colours. Painter's setting is full of colourful orchestral writing, in range and texture alike. The music responds well to one dimension of Watkins's sequence, its evocation of the heat-haze of a long summer's afternoon/evening, when "all is entranced [. . .] mazed amid the wheatfield". Claire Booth's delivery of the vocal lines was impressive in its range from the declamatory to the intimate, and Jac van Steen's conducting complemented her well in a work lasting more than thirty minutes. But there is another dimension to Watkins's poems too; a dimension hinted at in the poems' use of words of full of energy and even implicit violence - words like "springing", "sprung", "flying", "breaking", "torn" and "destroying". This aspect of the poems was largely ignored in Painter's setting. Perhaps this was because he so powerfully conceived of the work as a kind of elegiac farewell to Alun Hoddinott; or perhaps it simply didn't interest him. But ignoring it resulted in a setting which was largely homogenous in tone and manner. The last stanza of the first of Watkins's three poems ends thus:
Far off, continually, I can hear the breakers
Falling, destroying, secret, while the rainbow,
Flying in spray, perpetuates the white light,
Ocean, kindler of us, mover and mother,
That sense of endless change, of destruction and renewal, which runs through Watkins's sequence as a counterpoint to the poems' evocation of a magical stillness, was what I missed in Christopher Painter's setting. That said, Painter's song-cycle had some ravishing moments and packed a fair emotional punch. I suspect that Hoddinott would have been pleased by it, and would have appreciated this committed performance, which lost nothing by being performed in the hall named for Hoddinott and opened soon after his death.