THE Vale of Glamorgan Festival is South Wales's prime showcase
for new music. There are few contemporary composers to whom the
perceptive artistic director, John Metcalf, a fine composer
himself, has not given a platform over the years.
Now, in a tribute originally planned for Sir John Tavener's 70th
birthday, but just in advance of the composer's memorial service at
Westminster Abbey, it has mounted a retrospective in Tavener's
This festival, under Metcalf's inspired and steadying
leadership, casts it net wide. Among countless composers' work
reflected, the Australians - Peter Sculthorpe, Ross Edwards, and
Gillian Whitehead - perhaps stand out. Metcalf has encompassed
music by the South African Kevin Volans, the Americans Hans
Abrahamsen and Michael Torke, and Russian-born Elena Langer.
Minimalism has its ample say, from composers such as Terry Riley
and the late Steve Martland.
The Festival is a pantheon of today's creative talents, both
young and old. Jörg Widmann represented German composers this
spring; Xiao Ying, now Paris-based, the talent pouring out of
China. John Casken, Brian Elias, Philip Cashian, Simon Holt, Huw
Watkins, Julian Anderson, Metcalf himself, and Tarik O'Regan (who
was specially featured this year, having wonfame for his first
opera, Heartof Darkness) are some of thecurrent British
figures to be explored.
Formerly centred on the churches and colleges around the Gower
Peninsula, south of Swansea, the Festival has, sensibly, shifted
from September to May, and, drawing larger audiences, now focuses
on Cardiff and its environs, with events spilling over from All
Saints', Penarth, to a pier, a castle, and the restored and
relocated white Norwegian Church abutting Cardiff Bay.
Undoubted highlights of the week include O'Regan's Acallam
na Senórach: An Irish Colloquy, a 20-section work for choir
and guitar sung by the Chamber Choir of Ireland under Paul Hillier
(founder of the Hilliard Ensemble), who has conducted it for the
past six years.
The Tavener celebration formed the peroration of this year's
festival. It was to have included Tavener's Celtic
Requiem, a work that, with The Whale, established his
name as a bold avant-gardist in the late 1960s, and was likewise
later recorded on the Beatles' Apple label. That would have been a
rare insight into the mind of the younger composer. Alas, owing to
a programme change, that was not to be.
But, for this concert, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was
under the baton of the hugely experienced David Atherton, who as
founder-conductor of the London Sinfonietta, brought both those
works to birth. Instead, we heard Tavener's much later
Requiem of 2007, first heard in Liverpool Metropolitan
Cathedral, which draws on lines from the Qur'an and Sufi texts -
lines as enraptured as the Song of Songs - as well as on the
missa pro defunctis.
Equipped with two fine soloists, both scions of the choir of
Clare College, Cambridge, nursed to excellence by Peter Dennison,
John Rutter, and Timothy Brown, the soprano Elin Manahan Thomas ("I
have fallen in love with the Beautiful One who knows no death. .
.") and the tenor Nicholas Mulroy ("O Mother, take away my grief, O
Thou Essence of Consciousness. . ."), this mighty work welled up
miraculously from the depths with double basses, then exploded into
a dramaticDies Irae setting and continued highly charged ("Tuba
mirum . . . Liber scriptus"), the BBC National Chorus
of Wales (chorus master: Adrian Partington) packing a punch
There is no doubt that the Requiem is one of Tavener's
most convincing late works, but not least for the wonderful,
atmospheric cello solo line (Josephine Knight) that intermittently
surfaced and occasionally took apocalyptic flight on its own.
It was a cello that also mesmerised in the first half. Guy
Johnston, a former BBC Young Musician of the Year, was on hand to
offer the most riveting and ravishing performance of Tavener's
celebrated quasi-concerto The Protecting Veil. Armed with
Johnston's serene, pristine beauty of tone, this was the most
persuasive performance I have yet heard, large because both
Johnston and Atherton eschewed all histrionics and allowed the
piece to speak for itself, without special pleading.
Eloquent, spiritual in its own way, unerringly beautiful, and
here without any longueurs, this performance, wise, honest
and thoughtful, proved utterly transporting.