wed 17/08/2022

BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Atherton, St David's Hall, Cardiff | reviews, news & interviews

BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Atherton, St David's Hall, Cardiff

BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Atherton, St David's Hall, Cardiff

Britten centenary with a spring in its step in South Wales

David Atherton: constantly alert to the verbal dimension

The Britten centenary will, among much else, inspire performances of his comparatively under-regarded instrumental works - pieces like the cello suites and the string quartets, already sampled in brilliant performances at last week’s Wye Valley Chamber Music Festival.

But I personally remain an adherent of his vocal music, and especially of the Spring Symphony, which I first got to know – and vainly to imitate – as a Cambridge undergraduate decades ago.  It was a treat to revisit this dazzling score on Friday, so early in the festivities, in an exemplary performance under David Atherton in St David’s Hall.

Everything is here that made Britten what he was: the genius for making music out of words (something he may have discovered as a teenager in Verlaine), the ear for mixed orchestral sound, the subtle extensions of tonal harmony, the flair for polyphony alongside an impatience with textbook symphonic procedures. A symphony, in any classical sense, it certainly is not. More a gallery of stunning images: fanfares for the first cuckoo, a syncopated sarabande for the “sweet spring”, the driving boy with his jingling reins and strawberries swimming in cream (but what would Britten have said about girls in the boys’ choir? Dare one ask?).

The ability to transform words through music is a precious talent Profundity with a big P is studiously avoided, except perhaps in the exquisite setting of Auden’s “Out on the lawn”, with its disturbing vision of English rural complacency (coming oddly, though, from a pair of pacifists who vanished to an American drawing-room when the European kitchen got too hot). But the subtlety of verbal-musical play is a great substitute for spiritual gravitas. Who will ever read Herrick in quite the same way after hearing Britten’s delicious instrumental embroidery of his maids of honour? Or Vaughan, after the shimmer of sul ponticello in “Waters above”?  Who could endure Beaumont and Fletcher until Britten (pictured below in Snape) found an unforgettable dance music for the doggerel conceits of their “London, to thee I do present”? The ability to transform our conception of words through music is a rare and precious talent, not to be downplayed.

The performance under Atherton was constantly alert to this verbal dimension. Words – their shapes and meanings – were attended to. The tenor soloist, Andrew Kennedy, especially, wrapped his voice and facial expression round each word as if it were some rare specimen; Elizabeth Atherton and Jennifer Johnston radiated a sense of the urgency and immediacy of language. All three sang with precision and finesse, though Johnston sometimes needed a touch more volume.

Even the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir sang out with a clarity of articulation that Britten’s complicated choral writing tends to put at risk. The awkward “Shine out, fair sun”, with its wintry stretches of unaccompanied dissonance, remained lucid and querulously optimistic; “Spring, the sweet spring” bounced along like Nashe’s maids dancing in their ring; the Beaumont and Fletcher pageant finale had a controlled, not chaotic exuberance. The large children’s choir – choristers from various Welsh cathedrals, cassocked and surpliced ready for the matins that, in this work, never comes – delivered their chop-cherries and "Sumer icumen in"s with great aplomb, though I would have welcomed a harder – perhaps medieval – edge to their sound - memories of George Malcolm in the composer’s own recording.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales provided the other aspect of Britten’s way with poetry: that instant, almost Schubertian genius for the concrete musical idea, the image that captures the entire atmosphere of a poem in a notable phrase. Here again Atherton’s undemonstrative mastery of detail stood the music in good stead, as it had done earlier in a smart collaboration with Paul Lewis in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. Not a companion that the megalophobe Britten would necessarily have welcomed, though he would surely have appreciated Lewis’s poised, unfussy brilliance in music that, for all its grandeur, remains essentially classical in spirit.



A good review but it should be noted that the chorus was the BBC National Chorus of Wales {of which I'm a member!} along with the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir! Thanks

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