… unless I open the door …

… onyt agoraf y drws … (… unless I open the door …) [BBC commission: world premiere]
Viola Concerto [Revised Version]
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Lawrence Power (viola)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
David Atherton

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A programme that juxtaposed the latest work of an upcoming Welsh composer with the final piece of Rachmaninov and, as the concert’s centrepiece, a concerto from Walton’s early years that the composer revised thirty years later.

Guto Puw (born 1971) has looked to Welsh folklore for his BBC commission, the Branwen tale from the “Mabinogion”, reveals the composer, who further tells of “Bendigeidfran’s men (returning) from their heavy losses suffered during the fighting in Ireland. They feast in Harlech for seven years … (and then) they travel to a hall in Pembrokeshire containing three doors…”. In a nutshell, feasting continues for a further 80 years, during which time the warriors do not age, with the condition that the third door must remain unopened. Curiosity gets the better of them … and tragic memories are unlocked.

Musically this adds up to … well, something that is sporadically ear-catching but which fails to gel over 17 or so minutes. Governed by a story-line, Puw deploys both a large orchestra and the space of the Royal Albert Hall. The opening strident brass summonses arrest attention but too many ‘sounds’ (such as those produced from inside the piano) detract from any musical argument. Pictorial and atmospheric the score may be, with some rhythms and their percussion adornments suggesting the movement of a train (!), but while some of Puw’s invention is striking, the patchwork construction (as suggested by a single listen) simply doesn’t sustain the whole while picturesque episodes seem merely static. The three doors are dotted around the Albert Hall and manned by a trumpeter, clarinettist and violinist; space, yes, but little drama, and only the ‘medieval jam session’ (actually an Irish reel) the emerges towards the end sticks in the memory. Maybe a second performance, listened to with a detailed printed scenario, would make greater coherence of what seems like a sequence of loose-leaf folios. As it is some of the pages have their attractions. David Atherton and BBCNOW – the dedicatees – gave what appeared to be an exemplary first performance.

The remaining two pieces were not always so confident in execution: the sprightly middle movement of Walton’s Viola Concerto needed to be a little more easeful while still being elfin-like and Rachmaninov’s swansong required greater weight of sound without compromising the admirable clarity that was achieved, albeit the latter was somewhat impeded by too-dominant horns and trumpets. Lawrence Power’s emotional commitment to Walton’s Viola Concerto seemed less than it should be and some of his tone was rather thin. The composer Paul Hindemith (replacing Lionel Tertis who had returned Walton’s work to him!) gave the premiere (at the 1929 Proms, the composer conducting). Walton revised the score in 1961, reducing the winds, adding a harp (almost inaudible in this current account) and making other alterations to the instrumentation. Perhaps surprisingly, given Power has recorded the Original Version (for Hyperion), that the revision was chosen here, a performance that had a refreshing refusal to linger in the outer movements and in which the climax to the finale had genuine impetus, the numbed but stoical epilogue bringing the most involving playing from all concerned.

As he had previously indicated in his Piano Concerto No.4 and Third Symphony, Rachmaninov was writing in a leaner and more transparent style than previously, but with no lack of danger and passion. His musical farewell, Symphonic Dances, composed in the summer of 1940, was first heard in Philadelphia, Eugene Ormandy conducting – their recording (made around 1960) remains incomparable – is a triumph of ultra-sophisticated orchestration but without dowsing emotional fires. Concise yet expansive, it is perfectly possible to perceive this as ‘Symphony No.4’ – the official title rather undersells the depths of the work – and while this BBCNOW performance lacked heft and gave the brass too much of a head, Atherton’s well-judged tempos (the opening ‘Non Allegro’ was exactly that) and the perspicuous integration of episodes alighted on the music’s ‘symphonic’ impulse. If the impending catastrophe of the final movement was a little suppressed (Atherton opted for a solo gong abruptly cut off at the close – there is a textural conundrum between the two-piano version and the orchestration) he let the saxophone soar in the first movement and made an especially good job of the macabre, unsettled waltz that is the middle movement, muted trumpets adding appropriate malevolence.

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