Primavera Chamber Orchestra – 25th October

Picture of Gavin Bryars

Grosse Fuge, Op.133
Gavin Bryars
Violin Concerto (The Bulls of Bashan) [London premiere]
Bachianas Brasileira No.9
Serenade for strings

Primavera Chamber Orchestra directed by Paul Manley (violin)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 October, 2001
Venue: Purcell Room, London

Formed in 1986 by Paul Manley, Primavera numbers Sir Colin Davis, Sir John Manduell and the Master of the Queen’s Music, Malcolm Williamson, among its Patrons; it also has a number of CDs to its credit. I must assume this concert was an off night – this was not worthy of “one of Britain’s foremost chamber orchestras”.

Whether the twenty-one string-players gathered here are Primavera regulars I know not; I am reliably informed of a number of personnel changes since Manley and Primavera premiered the Bryars on 22 October last year. While everybody involved was undoubtedly committed, the impression was of under rehearsal and no overall interpretative view; the instrumentalists’ sole intention being to get through the evening as best they could. Monotonous renditions resulted, the players’ varying abilities all too obvious. Poor intonation, suspect ensemble, and a tonal blend that was, shall we say, less than mellifluous informed the performances.

Rendering Grosse Fuge with this number of strings is a halfway house. The music’s difficulty – for both performers and listener – is best experienced as Beethoven intended, as a string quartet; yet take a great symphony orchestra’s full resources and the result can be overwhelming – recordings by Furtwangler and Klemperer prove the point. Primavera’s scrappy, thin-toned account reduced Beethoven’s exalted vision to something serenade-like, his uncompromising argument barely suggested; the wildness and angularity of the home stretch did at least find the players addressing the music rather than signalling their misgivings.

The actual serenade of the evening was determined, with tempos well chosen, but the all-purpose vigour became wearing. Spirit, yes, but Dvorak needs to be sweeter-toned and more imaginatively phrased and coloured than here. The Villa-Lobos was dull and studied, the fugue cautious and mechanical – sight-read possibly, and not accurately.

Gavin Bryars writes of Primavera’s “alertness”. Yet, throughout, there were precious few signs of the chamber interaction that such a quality should bring. Although this London premiere appeared tentative, ’The Bulls of Bashan’ still made a positive impression. Writing in 1914, Cecil Forsythe complained of the noise and “solemn cabalistic rite” of string players attaching mutes – “And all this occurs … when inventors are as thick as bulls in Bashan.”

Bryars’s concerto is a thoughtfully crafted, anti-display piece, for the most part slow-moving, which makes great play with mutes, on or off of course, and also in “staggered transitions” – from bars 223-234 the composer requests: “add mutes one player at a time until all are muted”. Much of the solo part is high-lying, which troubled Paul Manley somewhat; I also felt – the composer in attendance notwithstanding – that the music could have sounded less static, which would have intensified the cantabile design and made the listener less aware of the music’s internal construction, the latter a possible consequence of limited rehearsal time. However, at nineteen minutes, this performance was only a minute longer than the score suggests; and it didn’t appear its length.

Always lyrical and melodic, with a vein of nostalgia, Bryars’s concerto might well begin at dawn, the use of mutes creating a misty atmosphere before a spring-like idyll (recalled from an autumnal perspective) emerges. Intimations of Vivaldi and warm string sonorities, enlivened by pizzicatos and gentle trills, breeze in an Italian connection, the Mediterranean variegation of Pizzetti and Respighi; Bryars gently enriches his textures by two-part writing for violas and cellos, with separate parts for Primavera’s two double basses. The solo part is tailored to a player who is also directing. Bryars’s basically slow meditation reminds of Finzi in its introspection and subtlety of means; I liked it and look forward to another hearing.

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