Bath Festival Orchestra/Manning review – watery theme fails to float relaunched ensemble

The Bath Festival Orchestra was established by Yehudi Menuhin in 1959, when he began his 10-festival tenure as director. It has now been relaunched under the baton of Peter Manning, and aims to invoke the status and reputation of the original group while offering a platform for emerging talents. However, it would seem from this showing at this year’s Bath festival, even factoring in pandemic issues and delays, that the orchestra has some way to go before it can match some of the extravagant claims made for it.

There was already something faintly surreal about an evening of music for strings inspired by the sea taking place in the city’s ancient Roman Baths, even if the screeching of gulls, wheeling and turning overhead, contributed to the conceit. And, although all four pieces had titles specifying their maritime connection, the combination of established works with new didn’t come together as a neat flotilla.

Opening the programme was Takemitsu’s 1981 Toward the Sea, commissioned by Greenpeace for its Save the Whales campaign and referencing Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – its consciousness-raising purpose arguably even more necessary today. Takemitsu’s inclusion of the sensuous alto flute (Frederico Paixão) and harp (Alis Huws) with the string texture gives the piece its distinctly French aura but, the playing of the strings – 16 in number – lacked the character to invest the music with the meditative element that is part of its fundamental quality.

US composer Daniel Temkin’s Ocean’s Call, premiered in 2015, was inspired by the immensity of the Pacific and California’s Big Sur. As a percussionist, Temkin might have been expected to concern himself with rhythmic sensibilities, but these were not apparent and, given the overwhelming feeling that had inspired the piece, it was underwhelming and insipid.

Visions at Sea (2011) by the Dutch composer Joey Roukens was, like the Temkin, first conceived for string quartet. Ostensibly conveying a sense of the Netherlands’ relationship with the sea over time, it patched into the fabric quotes from the past, together with bits of traditional hornpipe and sea-songs. Yet, with its mix of tonal and atonal elements, it never quite achieved an organic whole.

Between these two relatively recent works came Grace Williams’s 1944 work Sea Sketches. Eliciting the strings’ most robust playing of the evening, there were also expressive moments that suggested the ensemble’s ultimate viability but, overall, this was a disappointing occasion.

The Bath festival continues until 21 May.