News from conductor Owain Arwel Hughes * Major new Sibelius cycle from Chandos * ‘Owen Wingrave’ at Aldeburgh * Piano music by Panufnik
Orchestral conductor Owain Arwel Hughes, CBE, is approaching one of his busiest times of the year, with preparations and rehearsals for July’s Welsh Proms series in Cardiff. Founded in 1986, the Proms – which take place at St. David’s Hall in the heart of the Welsh capital – have become a traditional fixture of Welsh, and indeed British musical life, attracting some fine soloists and orchestras from the United Kingdom and abroad. In past seasons, Owain has presented a varied combination of the great classics, alongside contemporary and early 20th century music: Prokofiev, Orff, Mahler, Beethoven, Sibelius, Dvorak – interwoven with orchestral scores by Hoddinott, Mathias, Karl Jenkins, and the conductor’s father, Arwel Hughes, who for many years headed the Music Department of BBC Wales. For 2014, concertgoers in Cardiff can enjoy the same successful formula.
We are performing Dvorak’s slightly lesser-known Seventh Symphony, and the brilliant Chloe Hanslip will be joining us as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto,
We have also programmed an enticing collection of popular classics, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and I have chosen Shostakovich, Elgar, and William Mathias for the Last Night, with Gareth Wood’s specially-composed Songs of Wales – a chance for some lively community singing to take place – rounding off the season.
The Quarterly Review caught up with “OAH” (as he is known in music circles) a couple of months ago, enjoying a pleasant late morning of coffee and discussion at a hotel in central London.
Because this is the Dylan Thomas centenary, and because my own orchestra, Camerata Wales [a flexible, mainly younger ensemble that can be expanded or contracted according to repertoire and venue] has a commitment to taking music into the community, I will be busy not just with the Welsh Proms, but with several other exciting projects.
We have a churches and chapels series, and will also be touring a participatory community work by Mervyn Burtch, entitled The First Dragon. This piece, written in 1999 for Music Centre Wales is a sort of companion piece to the ever-popular Prokofiev classic, Peter and the Wolf. There will be a Dylan Thomas weekend later in the year, and the Camerata will play at that commemoration. We also work with modern Welsh composer, Paul Mealor, and I am also very pleased now to have been awarded an academic position at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David – Professor of Performance.
Yet fair weather, it seems, cannot be entirely taken for granted on the Welsh musical horizon – Owain expressing to us his concerns about local authority funding priorities for music, and the worrying news that some within Cardiff City Council do not seem to have a long-term view for the future of St. David’s Hall, and the New Theatre – the famous venue for Welsh National Opera.
St. David’s Hall, without a doubt, transformed the musical life of South Wales when it opened in 1982. The acoustics are brilliant, and the atmosphere is large-scale, yet intimate. For me, it is the perfect place for orchestral concerts. Despite the City’s huge support for music-making, it is disturbing to hear that there are some who would like to see this hall sold off – who see it just as a building or an asset. Serious, classical music-making in Cardiff is served by St. David’s Hall. Yes, we have the Millennium Centre, but this is more for larger-scale, spectacular, populist events. Thanks to St. David’s, many of the world’s great orchestras have come to Cardiff. We cannot lose this very special place.
Despite the Welsh emphasis on Owain’s work, he has managed to find time to record three rare English works, for the EM Records label. Conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra in sessions at the Watford Colosseum from the 7th-9th January, he has now set down on disc the world premiere performances of Stanford’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 162, and the revelatory 1937 score, the three-movement Violin Concerto by the undeservedly obscure figure of Oxford-born Robin Milford (1903-59). Also included on the CD is a breezy, brassy, energetic rendition of an early work by Holst, his Op. 7 Walt Whitman Overture, of 1899. All three works receive strong, convincing, flowing interpretations – the Milford work showing us the hand of a profound, reflective composer (in the world or style of Gerald Finzi, perhaps): a warmth, a bitter-sweet sentimentality, tenderness of tone, with many repeated lyrical phrases which linger in the mind, and a general sense of memory and melancholy, lovingly realised by soloist, Rupert Marshall-Luck.
Another notable recording which spans the greatest musical emotions has come to us for review, this time from Chandos. Here we have an epic journey in music: the complete symphonies of the Finnish nationalist, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). The works span Sibelius’s life and world: from the late-romantic, Tchaikovsky-like intonations of the first and second symphonies – the music of snow and rock, folk-feeling and Finlandia – of a composer making a loud, yearning, defiant national statement; to the thicker, cloudier, denser, more spectral sounds of the Fourth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies.
From the moment I pressed the play button on my CD player for the Andante opening of the Symphony No.1, to the final utterances of the 22-minute-long Seventh, I knew that these Chandos performances were of a quality and timbre not usually found in recordings of this composer. Of course, dedicated Sibelians will know and love the timeless interpretations of Paavo Berglund, the majesty of Herbert von Karajan, Lorin Maazel, Ashkenazy, and the authentic, rugged style of Okko Kamu and others. But Finnish conductor, John Storgards, and the BBC Philharmonic seem to have entered another world altogether: summoning a Sibelius from the winds and the elements – the symphonies coming to us as if they were part of the composer’s music for The Tempest. Nothing is forced, and there is no deliberate crescendo, or anything that is hard, strained, driven: the sound has a wideness, and a softness – it seems to gather, like smoke or mist, and you feel as though John Storgards is almost standing still, eyes closed, gradually building a beautiful, mysterious sound from his orchestra.
The sound of these CDs is almost seductive to the ear – although don’t misinterpret me: there is a resounding force where necessary, and all of the power of those great skies and flocks of migrating geese, and Thor’s hammer in the Fifth Symphony. But it all comes with a clarity and preparation that I have seldom found matched in other symphonic recordings. This approach particularly serves the recording of the Sixth Symphony, Op. 104, which dates from 1923 – a short time before Sibelius, like a musical Prospero, worked upon his incidental music for a production of The Tempest, in my view, the finest music by the composer. Symphony No. 6, which I increasingly find the most satisfying of the symphonies, seems to be a prelude to the world of Shakespeare’s magic island, with its lonely opening, elusive spirit, light dancing on water, and subtle changes of gear, with glints of harp music and ethereal detail well-defined, thanks to Chandos sound engineering. In the booklet notes, the Sibelius scholar, Timo Virtanen observes:
In reviews the Symphony was not welcomed with overwhelming enthusiasm but rather, a moderate and reflective gratitude.
We also learn that Sibelius himself said of the work, that there are many theories about it, but people do not see “that it is a poem above all”. The new Sibelius collection contains an interesting feature – just over two-and-a-half minutes of previously unrecorded music. “Three Late Fragments”, as they are titled, could possibly be all that was ever left of sketches for the Eighth Symphony, which was supposed to have been completely destroyed by the composer. They say that after the Seventh, Sibelius lapsed into a long silence. But could these short passages, conducted by John Storgards, be the tantalising signs and signals from a mind still brimming with music and inspiration? We shall never truly know.
The sea and coastal landscapes of Suffolk offer us a faint English echo of the Nordic loneliness with which Sibelius was familiar, and against that background of water, reeds, birds and sky the QR, once again, found itself as one of the guests of the (67th) Aldeburgh Festival. Our attendance took place on Sunday 15th June, for a 3pm performance at the Snape Maltings – one of the country’s best concert-halls and locations for music. The work: the pacifist-themed opera, Owen Wingrave, of 1969/1970 by Benjamin Britten, a composer who, despite possessing deep feelings for Englishness and an attachment to the Royal Family, opposed violence and militarism – and who spent the war years as a conscientious objector. Based upon a story by Henry James, the work concerns the rejection of militarism and rebellion against tradition on the part of a young man, Owen, scion of the Wingrave family – an ancestral old English family of soldiers and imperialists.
Fully-staged, and with a chamber orchestra “in the pit” (the Maltings can be magically converted into an opera house), conductor Mark Wigglesworth led the two-hour story of the young Wingrave’s growing disillusionment: with the military studies and cadetship which torments him; with war (all the great heroes of the past? – “I’d hang the lot of them”), and his family, with whom he clashes in a series of tense stand-offs in the gloomy family home, Paramore. Disinheritance and death follow – the death caused, not just by the grim reaction of the Wingraves to their disloyal offspring, but by the presence, or overpowering psychological “haunting” of accusing ancestors, and by the spiritual residue, present in a room at Paramore in which a Wingrave father killed a “cowardly” son. The family portraits, incidentally, were presented and brought to life on stage, in the form of soldiers in uniform and men in formal dress. Director Neil Bartlett did a fine job here – with great menace and tension kept up at all times, but I wondered if, perhaps, the soldiers (whose uniforms were of the same type and era) might have suggested “the past” more effectively if they represented a pageant of several centuries of military history? The musical score, at times, reminded me of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, with a sinister, stumbling, disturbing phrase appearing and re-appearing. Mark Wigglesworth’s players in the Britten-Pears Orchestra were of the very finest quality – a hand-made band for the works of this remarkable composer.
The leading part, played by Ross Ramgobin, was brilliantly done: the singer appearing at first, as a shuffling, resentful figure – but then becoming ennobled as if by defending the very ideal of peace. This Owen Wingrave also found courage to bark back at the family, although I must say, I did understand and sympathise to some extent with their incomprehension at Owen’s pacifism. General Sir Philip Wingrave (Richard Berkeley-Steele) – a sort of Lord Roberts figure – was not without some qualities, although one reacted (as the composer would have wished) against the spiteful Miss Jane Wingrave, played by a frowning, angry Susan Bullock and the pitiless Kate, Owen’s fiancee.
A truly enjoyable, and thought-provoking trip to the Suffolk coast, but I could not help but wonder at one moral problem. Britten stated before a wartime tribunal for objectors that his entire life had been devoted to acts of creativity and that he could not, in any way, engage in acts of destruction – and this is a perfectly decent belief to have. However, the question nags: if Germany had triumphed in 1939-45, would an Aldeburgh Festival of music and the arts have ever taken place in 1948 – supported by an Arts Council of Great Britain? Would Benjamin Britten himself have been captured by the invaders – his radical sympathies at that time condemning him to oppression, even death; his advanced and challenging music despised as alien to the regime? On a personal level, despite not wanting to have wars or to kill other people, I do believe that occasionally we have to defend what we know and love, with either the force of arms, or at least, non-violent resistance.
Finally, to another composer, influenced by the events of the 20th century and a commitment to peace. Sir Andrzej Panufnik (1914-91) was a significant and original voice of our times – indeed, I can remember hearing his Procession for Peace (a commission from the Greater London Council of the early-1980s) played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Kenwood House, Hampstead, at a picnic concert, of all things (and coupled with Elgar’s Enigma Variations) – a curious juxtaposition of non-nuclear Ken Livingstone-ism and English country house.
New from the Swedish BIS label is a collection of Panufnik’s piano music, from the Twelve Miniature Studies of 1947 (revised in the 1950s and ‘60s), the Homage to Chopin (arranged by the composer’s daughter, Roxanna, whose work also appears on this CD – her piece of 2003, Second Home), and a collaboration between father and daughter, Modlitwa – or ‘Prayer’. The pianist, Clare Hammond, executes this repertoire with enormous technical panache and total concentration – as this emphatically 20th century music (sometimes, to my ears, in the manner of Bela Bartok) makes clear demands of both performer and listener, although a softer lyricism enters into the composer’s Chopin homage. Clare Hammond was acclaimed by The Daily Telegraph as a soloist of “amazing power”, and her name is well known to visitors to the Wigmore Hall and Kings Place in London. Panufnik’s Twelve Miniatures must be close to her heart, for it seems as though this succession of short, instantaneous pieces becomes a much “greater” work in her hands. A fascinating and rewarding disc – BIS capturing the depths and detail of the Steinway Grand Piano with complete mastery.
STUART MILLSON is Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review