Concert Review

Cardiff Winds
Lion Ballroom, Leominster
12 May 2013

An Espressivo promotion

Leominster Town, on a mid-May Sunday afternoon, under lowering clouds driven by a bitter wind, brought to mind the old carol, ‘In the bleak mid-winter’. But in the Lion Ballroom it was indeed, in the words of Thomas Love Peacock, ‘matter for a May morning’.

TLP’s Dr. Folliot, in 1831, was referring to his host’s breakfast-table arrayed with lobster, large cups of tea, and well-buttered muffins. “Lobster is, indeed, matter for a May morning, and demands a rare combination of knowledge and virtue in him who sets it forth”.

Such knowledge and virtue were displayed in a choice array of music cooked up by Espressivo, the chamber music impresarios, established in 2002 and now based in Leominster, and by Cardiff Winds, a newly formed Wind Quintet.

Indeed, this was the Quintet’s first public performance. But they are no group newly emerged from Music College: the players are all seasoned professionals, Principals in prestigious orchestras, themselves teaching college students.

The occasion was also another First - the first performance of a new work by Derek Smith - indeed, the work was the mid-wife for Cardiff Winds. For when Derek, twelve months ago, showed his “Morning Music” to the Head of Woodwind at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, as a possible piece for College students to tackle, Meyrick Alexander’s reaction was that this was no piece for students, but deserving of professional treatment; and he formed the Cardiff Winds quintet to play it.

So a Double First for Leominster, a new top-quality ensemble, and a World Première of a work by an equally impressive composer: matter, indeed, for a May morning.

Having himself played the French Horn in a Wind Quintet for twenty years, Derek Smith knows exactly how to get the best out of this combination of instruments - which, in the right hands, such as his, is capable of a much wider range of texture, colour and emotion than one might expect.

Quintet No 2 is called ‘Morning Music’, and totally fulfils his intention to ‘entertain rather than demonstrate erudition’. But behind that unassuming ambition there is always a very individual mind, lively, witty, and in tune with the great composers who went before him. They set an example, which he follows: but, without any hint of pastiche, he often uses them as stepping stones to reach the far bank of his own flowing creativeness.

Thus, in his own programme note, he admits to the influence of J.S. Bach; but one also could sense the presence of the composer that followed Morning Music - Paul Hindemith,whose musical roots were also nurtured by Bach. Hindemith can often be a lot less approachable than Derek Smith, but in this instance the ‘Little Chamber Music’ seemed a natural bed-fellow for ‘Morning Music’. Both offered plenty to relish and chew over, like Dr. Folliot’s lobster.

The first work of the afternoon was a suite of Ancient Hungarian Dances, written for Wind Quintet in 1953 by Ferenc Farkas. The rustic scoring emphasized the folkiness of these clever pieces, melodies like those collected by Bela Bartok on his wax cylinder recording machine - music of a culture dying then, now gone for ever, but remembered and celebrated in works like this one.

The second half of the programme shifted from morning to afternoon - an afternoon of the sultry heat of an American summer. Samuel Barber wrote his Summer Music just a year after Farkas wrote his Dances, but there lay their only closeness. The drowsy air was full of relaxed and relaxing sonorities, insect noises and distant bird chirpings. One thought again of Bartok, and his use of insect sounds in his string quartets and concertos.

Debussy’s Petite Suite on paper did not seem quite to belong - the only work not written for Wind Quintet, but as a Piano Duet. But in performance it followed convincingly on the Barber, the palette of colours changing from the American summer landscape to the seascape of ‘En bateau’, and the Watteau-esque charm of the movements that followed. One could not help feeling that, however clever the arrangement for winds, the young Debussy knew what he was doing in choosing to write the work for four hands on the piano. Debussy and Ravel never forgot their roots in the tradition of Rameau and Couperin. These four little pieces are all dance movements - Barcarolle, March, Minuet, and Ballet. Charm and proportion are the watchwords here: the Debussian flute of ‘La Mer’, the gulls soaring above the spindrift, and the erotic flute, dreaming of Venus, in ‘L’Après-midi d’un Faune”, lie still in the future.

We hope there will be a distinguished future for this new group of musicians, and that they will find room and time in their busy schedules of playing and teaching to return to entertain and inspire us again: and soon. This highly satisfactory afternoon, high in Feel-Good factor, finished with ‘17 Variations’ by Jean-Michel Damase, written in 1951. He died just three weeks before this recital, so this was a timely if unintended tribute. He was a pianist of some standing, a pupil of Cortot and famed for his interpretation of Ravel: composing eventually supplanted performing in his life, and these variations illustrated all the elegance, charm, skill and sophistication that made the French the most civilised of all nations. One wonders if even now they serve lobster for breakfast.

Peter Williams

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