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Rachmaninov, Orff: Llŷr Williams (piano), Sarah Tynan (soprano), Alan Clayton (tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone), BBC National Chorus of Wales, Massed County Youth Choirs, Pupils from Ysgol Gymraeg Pwll Coch, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Andrew Litton (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 1. 3.2011 (GPu)

, Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini

Orff, Carmina Burana

Previous St. David’s Day concerts in Cardiff and/or Swansea have often involved programmes made up of a miscellany of shortish pieces, with a fair sprinkling of works by Welsh composers. A different approach was successfully adopted on this particular occasion. Though there were no ‘Welsh’ works featured on the programme, there was a great deal of Welsh playing and singing to be heard and, rather than an anthology of works, we had a programme containing two substantial and familiar works.

The Welsh input came from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and its associated Chorus, as well as from a large choir of young singers (from the various County Youth Choirs of Wales) and a small choir of even younger singers (from Ysgol Gymraeg Pwll Coch (a Welsh language school in Cardiff); and – of course – from the remarkable Llŷr Williams, featured soloist in the first work on the programme.

The Rachmaninov Rhapsody can all too easily sound vulgar, can too readily and too often become an exercise in emotional indulgence or mere glitziness; all of these conditions were strikingly absent in this particular performance. I am not sure that Llŷr Williams can ‘do’ vulgar; there is a patrician quality to his playing that involves a certain degree of emotional restraint, a restraint that certainly brought to this performance an elegance and dignity that performances of the work don’t always discover in it. This is not to suggest that the highest pianistic technique was in any way absent or that Williams’ was a ‘cautious’ performance; merely that brilliance was never flaunted and there was no over-demonstrative flashiness. Like most of the best soloists (and this is a pianist who seems to me to be entering that category), Williams has that inexplicable and unanalysable ability to make the familiar sound fresh, without obvious gimmickry or distortion of the music. Even the chords which present the theme of the Dies irae in the seventh variation were not merely melodramatic of ‘gothick’. The eleventh and twelfth variations were invested with an introspection that was genuinely moving. The sixteenth and seventeenth variations had a winning grace, and the famous melody of Variation 18 sang out impressively. The final variations didn’t pack as fearsome a punch as they sometimes do, but this seemed to be part of Williams’s approach to the piece, one which stressed the work’s intelligence and humanity rather more than it did demonic showmanship; Williams’s emphasis might not have pleased all lovers of the work but I found it thoroughly satisfying and thought-provoking. Williams’s solo playing was generally well-complemented by the conducting of Andrew Litton and the work of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

After the interval we were treated to another work of the mid 1930s – Orff’s Carmina Burana. While it may not be the profoundest of compositions, this is a work which, in any good performance, is bound to make a powerful impact, its synthesis of musical languages being powerfully communicative. It is one of those works which always sounds far better heard live rather than recorded (partly because no recording technology can really do justice to its huge sound-world). Its full title was Carmina Burana: Secular Songs for Soloists and Chorus with Accompanying Instruments and Magic Tableaux – so that even hearing it live in the concert hall we miss out on some of the dimensions which Orff envisaged as part of the work’s full nature.

Andrew Litton’s fully committed reading of the work was hard-driven for the most part – occasionally tempi were so fast that the massed chorus had some moments of difficulty (particularly in ‘In taberna quando sumus’). But Litton brought out well the antithesis of the two poles between which the work oscillates: on the one hand Orff’s vision of the medieval world as raucous and bawdy and, on the other hand, his sense of its occasional filigreed delicacy. There was a spine-tingling pace and volume (as there should be) to ‘O Fortuna’ at the work’s opening and closing; the staccato phrasing of the male voices (in particular) in ‘Fortune plango vulnera’ was impressive; in ‘Omnia sol temperat’ Christopher Maltman sang – as he did throughout – with his usual attention to shades and complexities of text and with admirable vocal certainty. The hints of inebriation in his later ‘Ego sum abbas’ were a delight, thoroughly effective without the slightest hint of crude comedy. Before that, tenor Alan Clayton was properly anguished in his mock-heroic ‘soliloquy’ as the roasting swan; that the tenor is made to sing so very high in his natural range creates, almost inevitably, a sense of strain that is peculiarly appropriate! Soprano Sarah Tynan’s contributions were nothing less than superb. In ‘Amor volat undique’ she brought out the quirky charm of the music (and the children’s choir complemented her delightfully); she sang ‘Stetit puella’ with great purity of tone and elegance of line; her interpretation of ‘In trutina’ was full of genuine feeling and was a powerfully ‘still’ moment in a composition which so often moves so quickly (and pace was a major feature of Andrew Litton’s direction of the work). There was a great deal to enjoy and savour in this Carmina Burana: with very good soloists, some impressive work by the choirs and some fine playing by the orchestra. Though this isn’t a work of the greatest depth or subtlety, it is a work which can fully engage an audience; it did so here, in a performance which was, rightly, well-received.

It being St. David’s Day the audience joined the performers in a closing rendition of the Welsh National Anthem. Writing, I should stress, as an Englishman, it occurs to me to wonder whether there are many other countries in which, on such an occasion, the Anthem would be likely to be sung so well and so movingly?

Glyn Pursglove


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