In light of this year’s Britten centenary, The Welsh Sinfonia has slipped its foot in the door with what will be one of many commemorative concerts to be given over the next eleven months.

The Welsh Sinfonia © Gavin Dando
The Welsh Sinfonia
© Gavin Dando

Creative and thoughtful programming is to be relished, and upon closer inspection a delightful number of parallels and interconnections between this concert’s works revealed themselves, as well as a well thought-out overall structure. Firstly, there was a tangible sense of timbral continuity: the concert was almost entirely string-dominated and the songs that formed the central focus were framed either side by string-based works. Similarly, the parallels between the song orchestrations were set in relief as a result of their adjacency. (The works set each other off so well, in fact, that the customary interval almost seemed to interrupt the overall trajectory of the programme.) Secondly, in the spirit of Britten, the role of the distant past was also prominent: Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony, the neoclassical elements in Bartók’s Divertimento (the reduced ensemble, solo/ripieno contrasts) and settings of British poets long dead (Britten’s Serenade covers five centuries of poetry).

At the outset, the intimate setting of the RWCMD’s Dora Stoutzker Hall was keenly exploited by conductor Mark Eager, whose introductory talk set an informal yet engaging tone. Britten’s grand “performance realisation” of Purcell’s Chacony was richly played – the sound exceeded that of the 22 string players present – with clear contrasts of repose and of forward drive. The brief major-key sections were wonderfully tender, and Eager and The Welsh Sinfonia gave a very linear performance, avoiding the trap of being lulled by the slow harmonic pace of the work.

Bartók’s Divertimento, by far the most demanding work of the evening, was excellently performed. The rhythmic textures of the outer movements were executed with precision and vigour, juxtaposed against the sudden lyrical moments, played with heartfelt clarity, their clashing intervals satisfyingly raw. Eager’s control over the frequent tempo changes was notably well judged. The interaction between the soloists and tutti within all three movements was dramatic and fluid and the overall balance was mostly clear. Occasionally the nippy dovetailing between the soloists was slightly out of sync in the faster sections, though this was a rare occurence. The dark, mysterious and mournful second movement was sinuous, well-paced and controlled, making the Molto sostenuto section at the centre particularly heartrending. Robin Stowell, the principal, imbued the extended violin solo in the third movement with a tasteful roughness and hard-edged tone.

To conclude the first half was Michael Csányi-Wills’ setting of A.E. Housman’s ultimately bleak On the Idle Hill of Summer. This is the seventh setting of Housman by Csányi-Wills to date, and he adds his name to a long list of composers who have been attracted to the Englishman’s poetry, including Butterworth, Vaughan Williams, Bax and even Barber. Csányi-Wills’ setting of the succinct 16-line poem opened with a (deceptively) bright flourish, leading to a harmonically lush and sweeping musical backdrop. The horn part alluded at times to that of a film score (appropriately enough, given the composer’s experience in film music), gliding in and out of the string texture along with the tenor line, gracefully sung by Nicholas Mulroy. Word painting was at the fore, highlighting the grave sentiment of the poem both texturally and tonally, concluding the song with a recall of the opening gesture, but in a far darker tonality. Those not familiar with the composer-pianist’s name (which, until recently, included myself) may have heard his film scores, or his Diapason d’Or-winning recording of Weinberg violin sonatas.

The unaccompanied horn solos in Britten’s Serenade provided an atmospheric opening to the second half and were expertly controlled by Angus West, with a pacing that responded sensitively to the acoustics of the hall. If one were forced to scrabble for a criticism it would only be the occasional split note within the leaps of the Prologue. Mulroy’s difficult first note (a high A flat) was both rich and effortless, a quality that summarised his whole performance, in particular the melismatic setting of Ben Jonson’s “Hymn”. As an ensemble, the blending of the three forces was both sumptuous and clear. For example, the brief but deeply emotive cello solo in Keats’ “Sonnet” (a mere four notes) seemed to emerge from nowhere and disappear just as elegantly.

Mendelssohn’s Haydnesque String Symphony brought the concert to an uplifting close. The articulation was light, the ensemble was tight and the sudden character changes were delightfully executed, particularly the unexpected final cadence of the third movement. Within the second movement, the alternating hierarchy between the four parts was seamlessly shifted, though the violins were sometimes a little out of step during the brighter middle section. The sprightly third movement was excitingly paced, energetic, and endearingly nonchalant.

Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and varied programme, thoughtfully chosen and excellently performed by the entire ensemble.