“Three concertos and an epitaph” is how the Wales Millennium Centre summed up tonight’s concert. Not only did the selected programme focus almost exclusively on three composers’ essays in the concerto genre, but it also spanned a narrow period of time within the mid 20th-century: 22 years in total, or 38 if one includes Andrzej Panufnik’s Katyn Epitaph.

Tadaaki Otaka © Martin Richardson
Tadaaki Otaka
© Martin Richardson

And, in a way, one might well include it within their scope. Whilst the Epitaph is neither a concerto in name nor virtuosic in style, its overriding soloistic and chamber-like qualities set it off well against the evening’s genre of choice. What is more, in context it created an intensely atmospheric opening to the concert: in two halves, the first section began with an expansive lament for unaccompanied violin (which blossomed beautifully within the acoustics of Hoddinott Hall), acknowledged and developed by the woodwind section. The leader, Lesley Hatfield, was attentive to every note. The opening unaccompanied violin solo then briefly returned to introduce the second half in which the entire string orchestra audibly seemed to heave itself from slumber before driving onward to a severe climax. Tadaaki Otaka’s pacing of this section conveyed a sense of significance in the staggered entries of the string orchestra.

Written in memory of thousands of Polish prisoners of war shot in Katyn Forest, Panufnik’s composition is both direct and emotionally provocative, so much so that it could easily have been incidental or film music. Indeed, the final orchestral fortissimo, underpinned by tolling timpani, becomes eerily programmatic considering the composer’s subject. In terms of overall cumulative texture and volume, progressive registral descent and perhaps even musical sentiment, the work is not dissimilar to Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten.

But on to the concerti. Britten’s Double Concerto, written when he was only 18 years old and realised by Colin Matthews in 1987, was apparently conceived in absence of a performance within the young composer’s mind, despite the near-complete state that he left it in. Nevertheless, it has rightly made its way into the repertoire. A bold, bright and already mature work, it is distinctly Britten, opening with a declamatory orchestral assertion followed quickly by the soloists’ own fanfares. Anthony Marwood (violin) and Lawrence Power (viola) were thoroughly in tune with each other’s nuances throughout, with a great sense of interplay and watertight (but nevertheless free) unison moments. They also brought a sense of youthful buoyancy to an otherwise potentially serious first movement. Within the second movement in particular (which at times wistfully alluded to the sound world of the English pastoralists), Marwood and Powers’ tone and vibrato blended with warmth. Finally, on Britten’s part, it was also interesting to hear a quiet and ultimately serene ending follow the rhythmic vitality of the final movement; an uncommon gesture in the concerto genre.

Written less than 20 years later, Otaka’s Flute Concerto exhibited a stark contrast to the tonality and soundworld of Britten. My overall impression of the first movement conjured up a fleeting collage of 19th-century Italian comic opera, French Impressionism, a Romantic concerto and music for cartoons, whilst the orchestra and soloist flitted restlessly between fragrant melodies and driven musical lines. There were also nods to Neoclassicism, all the while the flautist Adam Walker weaved nimbly in and out of the orchestral texture. The improvisatory second movement that followed evoked something of a poised, ornate Spanish lament, which led without a break into the impressive third movement, a toccata, which must be a competitor for containing the most repeated notes within a short, four-minute movement. The technical demands on the soloist were always at the surface of the work, from elaborate and seemingly endless scalic passages (played with nonchalant and delightfully flirtatious touches by Walker) through to glittering repeated notes. And at barely 20 minutes, the concerto seemed to finish as soon as it had begun.

The final work on the programme, Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, through its seriousness and sheer scale, immediately dwarfed the previous two concerti, replacing an underlying sense of intimacy with that of grandiosity. The striking first movement, with its sledgehammer repeated notes, made an immediate and explosive impact, but for me it was the second movement (Scherzo) that really showed off the orchestra. It was an incredibly tight and articulate execution with the many melodies, motifs, interjectory off-beats and flourishes passed between the sections with apparent ease. The final movement, at least equal in length to that of the first two combined, began with a dark, creeping, leering passacaglia bass line that formed the foundation for the remainder of the work. Noble in places and often strident, a chorale-like string theme finally brought a shot of sunshine into the movement, leading to a sparkling, bold and decisive close.