Concert Review

Cardiff Winds
Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham
18 May 2014

An Espressivo promotion

Could it, one mused, get any better than this? Outside, Pittville Park, on a Sunday afternoon, quietly basking under a Spring sun pretending to be Summer. Inside, the cool, lofty, finely proportioned space of the Pump Room, filled with the sounds of music longing itself to be outdoors.

Could, one mused further, a Wind Quintet get any better than these Cardiff Winds? It’s hard to imagine music better played, more cleverly chosen, or more enjoyably presented. Espressivo were taking a risk in coming to Cheltenham for the first time. An ideal setting, a world-class group of players, repertoire light and varied on the ear, with stimulating sounds that challenged but did not demand too much of its audience. The only problem proved to be finding that audience.

In spite of valiant promotional efforts by all concerned, and in spite of the programme including a rare chance to hear the Wind Quintet by Cheltenham’s own son, Gustav Holst, complete with the seventy-six bars edited out by Holst’s own daughter, Imogen, the number of bums on seats (if one can use such a phrase in such ladylike and gentlemanly surroundings) must have challenged the impresario’s financial arithmetic. Never mind - those present relished the event, perhaps remembering Henry V before Agincourt – “and gentlemen now-a-bed in England shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here”, etc.

Farkas’s Ancient Hungarian Dances set the scene and whetted the al fresco appetite, reminding us of music’s roots in dance with deliberately rustic ‘colour.’ Samuel Barber’s Summer Music, drowsy with the murmurs of summer, tried to dissolve the walls and curtained windows of the Pump Room and merge us into the surrounding Park. And almost succeeded.

The Holst Quintet, written in 1904, had failed to win a competition organised by the Royal College of Music. (Vaughan Williams’s Piano Quintet was also rejected by the judges). The Holst manuscript disappeared until 1978, when Imogen Holst and Colin Matthews “edited” it for publication; and, as the programme notes interestingly told us, they cut out 76 bars. These were restored for this performance: it might have been fun to know which bars they were, and why they had been excised. (One also wondered which work actually won the RCM competition!)

Derek Smith’s 2nd Wind Quintet had just the number of bars the composer meant it to have, and none of them deserved to be edited out. And the composer was present to add his seal of approval to that of the audience. His is a refreshingly unpretentious approach to music, but it conceals great skill and wit, which he wants us to enjoy with him. He keeps us on our toes, and the ghosts of Bach and other of Derek’s acknowledged predecessors smile along with us.

The recital ended with Ibert and Damase. Both were 20th century Frenchmen. Both studied at the Paris Conservatoire. Both were writing for the same combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, yet their use of the same palette produced very different colours. The texture of the Ibert, in particular, was a sonic world one could have wished to linger in a lot longer. The Damase 17 Variations, no less subtle and individual in their scoring, provided a fitting ending to the afternoon.

Variation writing is of course the only true form of musical criticism, and one of the audience (who should have known better) was heard to comment disapprovingly on the triteness of Monsieur Damase’s theme. Well, what about Diabelli’s waltz tune, and what Beethoven did with it? Damase is no Beethoven; but as, in the final variation, his theme strode exultantly among its rioting companions, one could not but think of Britten, with vastly huger forces, bringing his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra to an equally satisfying conclusion.

1n 1831, Dr Folliott, in Thomas Love Peacock’s ‘Crotchet Castle’, describes the perfect breakfast, holding lobster to be “indeed, matter for a May morning, demanding a rare combination of knowledge and virtue in him who sets it forth.” 1n 2014, Cardiff Winds were, indeed, matter for a May afternoon, showing a rare combination of knowledge and virtue in setting forth their feast. This audience, however scant in number, by their applause well deserved the delicious encore which sent us home hungry for more of the same.

Peter Williams

---- click here to return to concert reviews menu ----