fri 01/12/2023

Rysanov, Neary, BBC NOW, Outwater, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff | reviews, news & interviews

Rysanov, Neary, BBC NOW, Outwater, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

Rysanov, Neary, BBC NOW, Outwater, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

Welsh festival ends with two big, slow concertos, superbly played

Pēteris Vasks: the audience clapped as well

Apart from festivals like the BBC Proms that do everything, the best festivals have always been the ones that cut a distinctive profile. They might not offer the best music. Those old French festivals of modern music – Royan, La Rochelle, Metz – were a nightmare of clichéd avant-gardism. But you got what was written on the tin, and if you didn’t like it, serve you right for going.

Something similar is true of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, except for the clichéd avant-gardism. John Metcalf, who founded the festival no fewer than 47 years ago when barely (perhaps not even) out of college, threw all that overboard two or three decades ago and decided to include only the music he personally liked, which was broadly neo-tonal, new age, new simplicity, always by living composers – Tavener, Pärt, and, yes, Metcalf, because the same decision affected his own music, or maybe it was the music that affected the decision. The remarkable consequence anyway was a new audience, not of music critics, publishers, and strange men in raincoats, but of people who bought tickets because this was what they wanted to hear.

Even when the music dances, it often seems anchoredAt least, that has been my impression over many years of on-and-off attendance. This isn’t always exactly my kind of music – or rather, it usually starts by being and then becomes less so. In Friday’s closing concert of this year’s festival in Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall there were two big new works, one by the Latvian Pēteris Vasks, one by Metcalf, both celebrating their 70th birthdays this year. I found them both beautiful and clear in their aims; and both, for me, outstayed their welcome.  

Vasks composes intricate music that is, by and large, harmonically static. Both in his short string work, Cantabile, which opened the concert, and in the new work, a viola concerto with string orchestra, wonderfully played by Maxim Rysanov, he builds up elaborate textures without shifting the mode or changing key. The melodic writing and scoring are exquisite, but even when the music dances, as in the second movement of the concerto, it often seems to be anchored either by slow-moving pedal notes in the bass or by a fixed harmonic field.

Over 40 minutes this can be a problem, or it can be the whole point of a pacific mentality. Vasks includes two hugely long solo cadenzas, brilliantly written for the instrument. But they overbalance the form, and require a too-long final slow movement to ensure an adequate conclusion. And since the music, with all its beauties of sound, is very tightly knit motivically, it seems to me in the end to risk monotony. However, to judge by the cheers, I was in a minority of one on this point.

John MetcalfJohn Metcalf’s half-hour Cello Symphony is no less beautiful in its elements. It starts with a long, eloquent meditation on the “Dies irae” plainsong or something like it, and – just like the Vasks concerto – gradually builds up an intensity of feeling through expansion of the texture, but always in terms of this initial melody. Flashes of woodwind and brass break in from time to time, and a trumpet solo cuts through the rather dense string sound. These are striking moments.

Metcalf (pictured above right) controls his material skilfully, but he seems reluctant to write properly quick music, so that in the long run the piece threatens to languish and, when the end approaches, it seems to resist ending. Like Vasks, it achieves inner mobility rather than forward movement. It’s as if the composer has looked deeply into the sonority, exploring its detail, perfecting its balance, but hasn’t looked so carefully along the music’s surface from start to finish. This is probably not the case. But for whatever reason, the result is a certain tonal inertia, and a chain of lovely episodes with a structure that, for me, lacks definite direction. But after all, a lovely episode is a lovely episode. I don’t remember many of those at Royan or La Rochelle.

Alice Neary played the symphony with complete conviction and technical mastery, and gorgeous singing tone, and both soloists were brilliantly accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under a young American new to me, Edwin Outwater.

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