I too noticed that Welsh football fans were more enthusiastic last week than they have been since 1958, an otherwise memorable year (to a few) for the early work of Berio, Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies. The word “harmonious” has been shed loose by sports commentators to denote national importance to any country participating in a World Cup. Yet in Wales, land of song and lusty, melodious renditions of Yma or Hyd, there is a new dissonance too loud to ignore. Less than a month after Welsh National Opera, based at the Wales Millennium Center in Cardiff Bay, lost funding from Arts Council England – followed by an announcement on Tuesday that it could no longer afford to tour Liverpool – it is another new misery has arisen.
Cardiff’s leading concert venue and one of the best in Britain, St David’s Hall is under threat after a proposed takeover by Academy Music Group (AMG), which runs the O2 Academies and other big pop and entertainment venues . It’s still a proposition, but with leverage. St David’s Hall, opened in 1982, is currently owned, managed and funded by Cardiff council with support from the Arts Council of Wales. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, it seats 2,000 and hosts BBC Cardiff Singer of the World and the Welsh Proms, among other major non-classical events. Its acoustics have been judged among the top 10 in the world.
Ironically – a legitimate word here – the room was opened thanks to a conservative group leader of the city council (a bronze bust of which is on display in the atrium). This is the latest in a persistent trickle of attempts to transition this venue into the commercial sector. Once again, the classical world has to fight for survival. “Still here,” we chant, as another fault appears in the UK art building. The petition is here.
The King’s Singers have not ceased their musical, subversive and open-minded adventures under a honeyed veneer
Otherwise, the week’s musical pleasures were mercifully pure. He separates the taut strands of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (c.1742), written for harpsichord, and transforms them back into a version for violin, viola and cello. So did the Russian violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky in his 1985 arrangement, made on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Bach’s birth, as well as to pay homage to one of the greatest interpreters of the work, the pianist Glenn Gould. The effect is familiar but strange. The aria and 30 variations remain intact, but now feel like the counterpoint lines have been set out in different colors, easier to spot and follow. This version is far from unknown, but hearing it live is a rarity. The young and the virtuous Teber Trio – Tim Crawford (violin), Tim Ridout (viola) and Tim Posner (cello) – using very little vibrato and offering plenty of character, gave a lucid and enthralling performance at St Martin-in-the-Fields.
Just as the Goldbergs, in any performance, have a sense of occasion, so does Messiaen’s Quartet for the end of time (1941). The circumstances of his creation, written while the composer was a prisoner of war in German captivity, can never be told too often. Everything about him is unusual, from the combination of instruments – piano, violin, cello and clarinet – to his eight irregular movements. It was performed last week as part of the Spotlight Chamber Concerts, held in the beautifully restored St John’s Waterloo church.
Clarinettist Anthony Friend, who conceived the illustrious series, was joined by three other great freelance musicians: violinist Agata Daraskaite, cellist Peteris Sokolovskis and pianist James Cheung. There was a sense of true musical equality here, sometimes in jeopardy when bigger name soloists gather to play this work. The visual impact of a darkened church, with the quartet sitting in a pool of light, matched the vision and intensity, as well as freshness, of their playing.
One good fortune – I can’t immediately think of any other – resulting from Covid is that some venues have continued to stream, including the pioneering Wigmore Hall. The King’s Singers they were live on Radio 3 and on Wigmore’s website. This a cappella sextet, founded in Cambridge in 1968, with several line-up changes since then, has not ceased its musical, subversive and unscrupulous adventures under a honeyed veneer. With the bass and two baritones typically providing a harmonic foundation, the tenor and two countertenors digging, screaming and cutting above, the king’s sound is instantly distinctive, in any repertoire.
On Monday they sang contemporary works commissioned by them: The Alphabet by Györgi Ligeti (from Meaningless madrigals), the elegant The Wishing Tree by Joby Talbot and two world premieres – A dream within a dream, a sensual work in three parts by the Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978), and Alive by Francesca Amewudah-Rivers (b. 1998), a rising star in music and theatre, as a performer, sound designer and composer. In this short work, her first for the group, part choral, part pop song, she has captured the king’s playful, silky idiom perfectly.
Star ratings (out of five)
Teber Trio ★★★★
Quartet for the end of time ★★★★
The King’s Singers ★★★★