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A fitting celebration

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales
plays Ravel, Hoddinott and Vaughan Williams,
reviewed by REX HARLEY


What a glorious piece of programming: the lushness of Ravel's Shéhérazade; Vaughan Williams' icy Sinfonia Antartica and, in between, Alun Hoddinot's dynamic Symphony No 7. My mouth was watering anyway, but sad to relate, the mix was clearly less enticing to most Cardiff concert-goers; St David's Hall on Friday 18 February 2005 was barely half full. Of course, professional orchestras and singers give of their best whatever the size of the audience, but I tend to think they deserve better.

It should have been Katerina Karneus singing Shéhérazade but she was indisposed so, at a few days' notice, her place was taken by Ailish Tynan, one of the current BBC New Generation Artists. Her voice has, as yet, neither the maturity nor flexibility of Ms Karneus but her performance was strong on dramatic colouring and purity of tone. The first of the three songs, Asie, calls for a wide range of emotion, from tenderness to almost sadistic glee: 'Je voudrais voir des assassins souriants/du bourreau qui coupe un cou d'innocent.' ('I should like to see assassins smiling/ as the executioner cuts off an innocent head'). Ms Tynan fairly snarled 'assassins souriants', and, most importantly, gave the impression that she was seeing, in imagination, every facet of the luxurious Orient so lovingly described in Tristan Klingsor's poetry. Her diction too was spot-on and, when it was required, she demonstrated the full range and impressive power of her voice. She was equally at home in the languorous Flute Enchantée and L'Indifférent, delivering the latter with understated wistfulness.

Ravel was a master of orchestral colour: Vaughan Williams also, not least because of the short but significant time he spent as Ravel's pupil. The Sinfonia Antartica was written much later, nearly forty five years afterwards, but the evocation of place and atmosphere owes much to the lessons learned from Ravel. Effectively, the piece is as much a tone-poem as a symphony, stemming as it did from Vaughan Williams' earlier film score for Scott of the Antarctic. There are icebergs; there are blizzards; there are even, briefly, playful penguins. But the remarkable thing about the symphony is that the composer manages to capture the inhospitable grandeur of an almost featureless landscape through purely musical means; and what a live performance reveals is the subtlety of those means; the way the sections and soloists within the orchestra effect the shifting moods.

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Copyright © 28 February 2005 Rex Harley, Cardiff UK


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