For the few of us who chose not to spend the warm afternoon picnicking in the park, instead we enjoyed the cool art deco interior of Cardiff’s Temple of Peace while watching the sunlight streaming in through the full-length windows. The Welsh Sinfonia’s light programme was framed by two Classical symphonies and the event was preceded by free tea and cake. What more could you want from a Sunday afternoon?

Elaine Tate as Semele, © Laurent Compagnon
Elaine Tate as Semele,
© Laurent Compagnon

The majestic opening of Mozart’s first ‘grander’ symphony, the ‘Linz’ led into the more romantic inflections of a surprisingly chromatic melody. A more spirited section followed, whose refrain had echoes of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. The orchestra perfectly captured the gentle ‘siciliano’ lilt of the second movement, contrasting its gentle sighs with the more spiky texture of the cello and bassoon in the darker middle section. The transition into the Menuetto and Trio was sadly marred by the intrusion of a car alarm in the parking area outside, but conductor Mark Eager remained undeterred and swiftly moved on – happily, the symphony sounded in the same key! There were some particularly fine imitative wind solos from oboe and bassoon in the lyrical trio, before an exciting finale where the theme was bounced between wind and strings.

‘The Path through the Woods’ was a new commission by the Welsh Sinfonia, scored for string orchestra, recorder solo, and recorder ensemble consisting of young players drawn equally from North and South Wales. The work draws from composer Rhian Samuel's earlier work ‘Path’ which set to music a poem by Anne Stevenson of the same name.

The opening suggested an animal call in the forest with wailing strings, with the solo recorder adding its own bird calls into the mix. There was something sinister about this forest, as the distressed strings gradually built in intensity before reaching an abrupt halt at the climax. This was a stylistically varied work, quoting a Lully aria and featuring a jazz duet between soloist and pizzicato bass. The orchestration was also at times highly evocative: the poem speaks of ‘dust motes’, shown in the pizzicato violins towards the end. The composer herself pointed out how difficult it can be to write for recorder with ensemble and achieve a good balance with such a quiet instrument. It was just a shame on this occasion that so much of soloist Pamela Thorby’s sparkling virtuosity was lost in the texture, only the really high notes sounding clearly against the string orchestra.

Copland’s Quiet City opened with sleepy strings before the solo trumpet rang out with a bell-like purity in the high-ceilinged hall. This was contrasted by the more unassuming presence of the solo cor anglais, who represents the tramp in the play for which Copland originally wrote the music. The climax came with swelling strings and a sweet duet between the soloists, before returning to the more subdued music of the city at night.

Written in the rare key of F sharp minor, Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 was a work of opposites, opening seriously and closing with a private joke. The dramatic opening was typical of his ‘Sturm und Drang’ period, driven by rapid repeated notes from the inner strings. The second movement had a searching restlessness, whose uncertainty was made all the more anxious by the jaunty irregularity of the ‘scotch snap’ rhythms. This led to an ever more surprising sequence of harmonies that is characteristic of Haydn, who often does not receive enough credit for his forward-thinking innovation, both rhythmically and harmonically. This harmonic eccentricity spilled over into the minuet, whose straightforward opening is thrown off balance by an unexpected dissonance halfway through the phrase.

The finale closed with a not-so-subtle hint to Prince Esterhazy that the musicians wished to return home, having overstayed their visit. The scoring gradually diminishes, leaving the musicians free to walk off stage before the piece has finished. Conductor Mark Eager was so amused by this tale as a boy that he chose to recreate it in the concert, eventually being led off stage himself by the viola player, leaving just a violin duet to close the entire symphony.