Thursday, 7 January 2016

Graham Whettam: Sinfonia Concertante for small orchestra

Graham Whettam’s (1927-2007) Sinfonia Concertante for small orchestra was first performed 50 years ago at the Civic Theatre in Darlington on 11 October 1966. Other works that evening included Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2 with the soloist Peter Wallfisch, Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony No.36 in C major, K.425 and Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera for alto saxophone with Jack Brymer in a less-than-familiar role.  The Northern Sinfonia was conducted by the Canadian Boris Brott with Whettam directing his own work. The Sinfonia Concertante was repeated in Newcastle on 12 October. It was one of three important premieres for the Northern Sinfonia that year: the other two included Nicolas Maw’s Sinfonia and Wilfred Mellers’ Magnificat. All three works seem to have disappeared from the repertoire.

Graham Whettam’s Sinfonia Concertante for small orchestra has three movements: Maestoso, allegro, andante and allegro. It lasts for about 21 minutes.  The full score was published in 1987 by UK Meriden Music.

Brian Newbould in The Guardian (12 October 1966) gave a major review of this concert: ‘With some relief, no doubt, those in the audience to whom Graham Whettam has been no more than a name will have found his new Sinfonia Concertante an utterance of the direct, uncomplicated kind, designed (so it seemed) to please the ear above all, and engage the mind of him who is willing.  The symphonic element of the title is invoked at the start with a sombre, pounding bass that recalls Brahms’s very first symphonic bars. Although its mood is to return intermittently, and again for a passing moment in the last of the three movements, it is the concertante element that predominates, the elected instruments being flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon and harpsichord against a background of strings.
It is the woodwinds that have summoned Mr Whettam’s more riveting ideas: the string writing rather overworks its less resourceful material. The central slow movement measured by ear, not by the clock, is long in relation to the other movements and its own slight substance. It also dispenses with the harpsichord, which elsewhere had not sounded very much a part of the concertante group, placed as it was by the stage wings.’

The first broadcast performance was given on 9 October 1968 on BBC Radio 3. The concert also included music by Haydn. The Northern Sinfonia was conducted by Norman del Mar (Radio Times)
Edmund Rubbra wrote in a review of this concert in The Listener (17 October 1968):
‘The first broadcast performance of Graham Whettam’s Sinfonia Concertante …showed a skilled hand in the deployment of instruments and a flair for effect. If it left no very clear-cut formal impression, this was partly the result of material that tended to have blurred edges and loose ends.’
Two weeks later the composer responded to this review in a letter to The Listener (7 November 1968):
‘Sir: Dr. Edmund Rubbra, in reviewing the first broadcast performance of my Sinfonia Concertante, referred to ‘blurred edges and loose ends.’ With this I entirely concur, having advised the BBC of over three dozen specified inaccuracies or inadequacies in the performance, these varying from simple ignoring of written dynamics to one passage where crotchets were played in time of quavers. The microphone balance in the recording did not appear to be satisfactory, there being a heavy preponderance of strings. After a two year delay since the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra gave the initial performances of this work under my own baton, the BBC was obliged ‘in the interests of the Corporation’s economy drive’ to quote a senior official, to entrust this first broadcast to a conductor hitherto unfamiliar with the work, and whose only consultation was to advise me by letter that this would be ‘an ordinary common-or-garden pre-recorded broadcast.’ I regret that I was unable to accept this broadcast as an adequate representation of Sinfonia Concertante.
Graham Whettam.’

I find that his work is immediately approachable. There is nothing here to challenge the listener in 2015: there is plenty to interest them. I was particularly impressed with the use of the harpsichord in this work. Strangely, it adds to it contemporary feel and does not strike the hearer as being in any way pastiche baroque. The slow movement is haunting and quite magical. The work is full of delightful conversations between the solo instruments and the string orchestra. This is a piece that would be successful if given a modern recording, possibly coupled with some other music by the composer. It is one of the great works of the 1960s. 

Graham Whettam’s Sinfonia Concertante for small orchestra has been uploaded to YouTube .  It was recorded from a broadcast on 19 May 1982.  The Northern Sinfonia was conducted by Bryden Thomson. The concert included John McCabe’ ‘Sonata on a Motet’ (1976) and Gerard Schurmann’s ‘Variants for chamber orchestra’ (1970)

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