International Record Review

Rather unwisely, the lively first of Alun Hoddinott’s (three) Investiture Dances follows the tranquil of ambiguous close of Elgar’s symphony – and then after a mere eight seconds of silence! Hoddinott composed Investiture Dances for the investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969 – music first heard in London under Sir Charles Groves. Hoddinott doesn’t use Welsh folk tunes but characteristics of them. The second Dance is rather eerie and redolent of the corresponding one in the later Sir Malcolm Arnold’s set of Cornish Dances (1966). The National Youth Orchestra of Wales (founded in 1945, reveals the booklet biography, or 1946 according to Divine Art’s presentation, and with Owain Arwel Hughes now as its music director) plays with skill, unanimity and identification.

In one of Elgar’s most complex works, under Hughes’s thoughtful direction, the orchestra gives a considered view but not a competitive version: there is a lack of fire, and some of the playing, despite being captured under studio conditions, doesn’t pass muster. That said, it is also a very creditable account for a youth orchestra under a conductor who certainly steers his charges responsibly through the work. The problem is not so much the spacious tempos (mostly applicable to the first movement) but the lack of voltage: this is a well prepared and dedicated performance that doesn’t really take off. If the under-projected opening (both emotionally and in terms of tempo) coheres when slower-moving episodes are reached, one listens more in admiration as to what has been achieved rather than becoming immersed in the music itself.

The orchestra’s personnel is listed and includes 30 violins (16/14) and 13 cellos, although both the violas and double basses are deficient in numbers, respectively counted as five and six. Does this reflect two instruments not being taken up by youngsters generally? Although the ear hears a reasonably strong bass line, the muddle string registers are not perceived with the same presence. Woodwinds are profuse, though, including six each of flutes and clarinets, and presumably all those on the roster are playing (it’s not uncommon for youth orchestras to be so outsized). There are four harpists, and brass numbers are “standard”.

If the Elgar had been heard in a concert, I think anyone would leave the hall having been impressed by the musicians’ application. But this is a recording. The second-movement Larghetto lacks glow, and although such introspection could be considered equable with mourning, the underlying passion that should sustain this movement isn’t always apparent and Hughes tends to harry it along. The strings are a little “grey” and thin, which is partly to do with the relatively distant perspective given to the orchestra, with detail not always clear enough – although the engineering is pleasingly natural and unobtrusive – which contributes to a marmoreal feel. What should be a fleet and nightmarish scherzo is a little cautious. In the finale the emotional stakes are raised, although there is room for even more sentiment, and the trumpets’ interjection (5’12” – 4’13”) could have usefully been held longer to really sear through the texture. There is a memorable “ice-cold” moment when the music turns in on itself (around the 13’40” mark).

A brave choice, valiantly undertaken, this is a fine souvenir for all involved and a calling-card for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and its devotion to the performance of food music. The booklet contains notes in English and Welsh.

—Colin Anderson