After hearing the Welsh Sinfonia’s last concert in January 2013, I was pleased to have the opportunity to attend their Gala Finale concert this month. This was particularly the case since it included a première of a new composition by Roxanna Panufnik, daughter of Andrzej Panufnik, whose Epitaph I heard finely performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in March. This was a finale concert not of fireworks and cannons, but of small-scale charm.

Emma Halnan © Ben Halnan
Emma Halnan
© Ben Halnan

The concert opened with William Mathias’ Intrada, a rhythmic and bold five-minute piece that drew a full sound from the relatively small ensemble on stage. The overall soundworld within this piece is broad, with chords of bare fifths punctuating the texture and contrasts between warm sweeps and harsh, strident chords in the string textures. Nevertheless, there was something lacking and it wasn’t in the performance. As Anthony Burton writes, Mathias can write “singable if not always distinctively memorable lines”, and the essence of Burton’s observation is perhaps what was absent in Intrada – whilst well-executed, it is unfortunately not a particularly striking, nor immediately memorable work, and for those unfamiliar with Mathias it should probably not be considered alongside his finer works. Indeed, a composer friend of mine suggested that the problem arose as a result of the time restriction imposed on him by the work’s commissioners.

The ebbs and flows, swells and sighs of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried-Idyll that followed were very well-controlled, with sensitive blending between the woodwind and strings and commendably soft tones from the two French horn players, Angus West and Martin Davies. What is more, their unison rhythms were tight and entirely in sync. Most clearly, as an ensemble, Wagner’s deliberately elongated ending was beautifully controlled within the limited dynamic range allowed to them by the composer and the final woodwind chords were full and rich.

The jarring, deceptive opening bars of Jacques Ibert’s Flute Concerto create a deliberately false impression of a more severe work. This is quickly dismissed to reveal an essentially playful character within the first movement, the orchestra spinning a charming, cheeky and witty web of interjectory scales, figurations and murmuring runs that were tightly executed by the Welsh Sinfonia, providing a solid, glittering platform for soloist Emma Halnan. Equally, just as the beginning of the concerto creates a smokescreen around the light-hearted nature of the work, it seems to me (especially after hearing Hisatada Otaka’s Flute Concerto at the recent BBC NOW concert) that this particular genre seems to release the inner demon within some composers, leading them to write a sprightly, seemingly nonchalant, but thoroughly demanding works for soloist and orchestra. Ibert’s concerto is no exception. Consequently the ensemble seemed to take a few bars gain its stride, but quickly settled. Halnan was on top form throughout, shining in her effortless execution of the outer movements, but for me it was in her pure, clean tone in the bittersweet second movement which served to evoke a moment of poised stillness at the central climax. As acknowledged by conductor Mark Eager, the effervescent third movement readily exhibits a Ravel/Gershwin-like influence in its faster moments (particularly An American in Paris) and it may, I suspect, have sparked the imagination of Hoyt Curtin, writer of The Flinstones’ theme tune.

Roxanna Panufnik’s Orchestrapaedia is a light-hearted response to Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Her approach is somewhat akin to Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals in that she seeks to personify the various instruments, imbuing them with an assortment of names and personalities as the story of a “day in the life” of the orchestra unfurled. The story itself was detailed colourfully in the programme notes and further enhanced by Jem Panufnik’s projected illustrations. Not only did the inclusion of these images allow for the progressive sections to be immediately clear for a first-time listener, but they also allowed for a smoother flow overall, since a narrator was unnecessary. The style of the work was a theatrical fusion of various musical genres, most notably jazz and folk, which was strikingly different to her father’s more Eastern-European style of writing. A succinct and engaging addition to the canon of orchestral “guides”.

On the final work of the evening, the programme notes mused that it is the brevity of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 8 that contributed to its position within the shadows of his other later symphonies. I would suggest that it may also be that the work doesn’t exhibit what we would expect from Beethoven’s music (chronologically speaking) and the demands that he tends to make on us as listeners. Indeed, Beethoven’s Eighth is a thoroughly agreeable listen and, on the surface, doesn’t present the profundity and/or challenge of his middle symphonies, for example. Nevertheless, the Sinfonia performed it with charm and exciting subito dynamics, the shuddering string textures in the fourth movement in particular bubbling with great lightness.