Just time for a quick post while I eat my breakfast this morning about last night’s Scott Centenary Concert at St David’s Hall Cardiff. The concert was given by the City of London Sinfonia (conducted by Stephen Layton) and last night’s performance was actually the third date in a tour which takes them next to Cheltenham and then to the Cadogan Hall in London. I mentioned this concert in a post last week.
The main music for the evening was written by Vaughan Williams. The concert started with excerpts from his score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic, interspersed with dramatic readings from Scott’s own diaries and letters, by actor Hugh Bonneville. Apparently Vaughan Williams found the subject matter of the film so compelling that he wrote a huge amount of music, most of it before even seeing the screenplay, and only a small part was actually used in the movie soundtrack. He later re-worked much of this material into a full symphony, The Sinfonia Antarctica, his 7th, which was performed in full after the interval. Musically speaking, therefore, the opening piece was really a taster for the full work, but the readings were deeply moving.
Scott kept full diaries all the way from the beginning to the end of the expedition so they describe the journey in remarkable detail, and with no little poignancy. The initial optimism gradually tempered turned to crushing disappointment when they discovered that Amundsen had beaten them to the South Pole. When they turned home to try to reach safety before the Antarctic winter closed in around them, Scott’s diary asks for the first time “I wonder if we’ll make it.” Passages describing the awful death of Petty Officer Evans and Captain Oates’ noble sell-sacrifice were included, and the last terrible days when, without food or fuel, the three remaining companions were entombed in their tent by a raging blizzard, were depicted by Scott’s increasingly fragmentary and heartbreaking notes. One can’t really imagine the depth of their suffering, of course, but the desolation of their last hours is obvious. Their bodies were not found until 8 months later.
Before the interval we heard a new commission, Seventy Degrees Below Zero, by Cecilia McDowell, featuring tenor Robert Murray. This was an orchestral setting of various parts of the scientific record of Scott’s Last Expedition. I have to say I didn’t really like the piece: the vocal lines lacked interest and the orchestral music lacked any real sense of variation or development. Robert Murray struggled to project, his rather thin tenor voice not really suited to the music.
After the interval we had a complete performance of the Sinfonia Antarctica. Although I enjoyed it very much, I’m still not sure how well this hangs together as a symphony. There’s no doubt, however, that it contains a number of strokes of genius. The opening theme, heard at various points later on in the piece, manages to conjure up the Antarctic landscape – not only the snow and ice but also its singular desert-like aridity – as well as a deep sense of tragedy. The second movement featuring soprano Katherine Watson and women’s voices from the Bath Camerata and Wells Cathedral School Chamber Choir in wordless singing produced a wonderful unearthly atmosphere. Later on, there’s a passage featuring an organ which gave me the chance to hear he magnificent organ at St David’s Hall for the first time.
Projected above the orchestra throughout the performance were still photographs actually taken during the expedition. Some of these – like the one shown above – were stunning, but after a while I found them a bit of a distraction from the music.
Overall, an interesting concert rather than a brilliant one, which was well received by the (relatively small) audience at St David’s.Follow @telescoper