Friday, 22 August 2014

Illuminating Britten War Requiem Nelsons CBSO Prom

Andris Nelsons conducted Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at Prom 47. Nelsons' War Requiem with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham is legendary, but the Royal Albert Hall is a unique setting. It illuminates even relatively straightforward performances, like Bychkov's on 11/11/13 more here)  But whatever the reason, Nelsons' Prom Britten War Requiem was exceptional. You can never say "the finest ever" but this came close. Wh ? I think because Nelsons brought out its fundamental musicality. The War Requiem carries emotive baggage, which is perfectly valid, but Nelsons emphasizes its musical depth, making its impact even more powerful.

"Kleenex at the ready… one goes from the critics to the music, knowing that if one should dare to disagree with ‘practically everyone’, one will be made to feel as if one had failed to stand up for ‘God Save the Queen' " said Igor Stravinsky. He had a point, for the image we get of the 1914-18 war is distorted by media emphasis on the Western Front. Stravinsky knew that what happened on the Eastern Front was arguably far more catastrophic. Famine, ethnic cleansing, the rise of Bolshevism and the collapse of the Old Order.  "Which war, whose requiem?" as Ian Bostridge wrote in A Part of History: Aspects of the British Experience of the First World War (Continuum, 2008) . Can a piece commissioned to commemorate Coventry tell us about Dresden, Stalingrad, Nanjing, Hiroshima and the Holocaust?  Nelsons' magisterial account connected the War Requiem to the ages, and made it timeless. Exceptionally good choral singing (concert master Simon Halsey) and playing made this a Prom to remember.

The long chords of the organ thundered into endless resonance, searching infinity. Shimmering brass, and the bright, younger voices of the BBC Proms Youth Choir: a Requiem Aeternam that truly felt eternal.  "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? " comes as a shock. The brutality of Wilfred Owen's imagery emphasized by the quiet menace of the tolling bells in the orchestra.  Trumpets led forward, dazzling in their brightness, percussion at once beautiful and brutal, in telling contrast. For whatever reason, mankind is seduced by war.  Hence, perhaps, the contrast between "bugle" and solo flute, and the first appearance of the soprano.. The elegance Nelsons draws from his players and singers is far more unsettling than straightforward dissonance.The swirling counter-rhythms in the chorus  further shake us from our bearings. Nelsons defined the critical descent into silence from which the soprano (Susan Gritton) rose. Lovely back and forward rhythms, yet chilling, for they suggest the swaying of a body being carried on a stretcher. "Move him into the sun " thus felt surprisingly physical, even earthy, for Owen's poem refers to clay and the fields unknown soldier might have tilled. The poem, however, is titled "Futility" for the sun's rays cannot revive the dead.

What "offering" is this Offertorium?  jaunty rhythms like a mad folk tune from the ancient past. This sets the context for the "Abraham and Isaac" passage, where Toby Spence and  Hanno Müller-Brachmann sang together, victim and killer bound in an unclean pact.  We're in the trenches but the weight of  Biblical forces bears down. "Half the seed of Europe, one by one" is destroyed. Nelsons marks the silences between each repeat, so the portent sank in fully .

The Sanctus refers to the sacrament of consecration. Bell sounds rang out, as in the most holy moment in the Mass. Susan Gritton's voice shone on the word "Sanctus", but also picked up on the "medieval" decoration Britten wrote into the part, not always observed so cleanly. From cataclysmic tumult to all-illuminating transfiguration. All the forces Nelsons had at his command united in a glorious pinnacle of overpowering brightness. Truly, "after the blast of lightning from the east, the flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot throne".

In the Agnus Dei, Britten quotes Owen's "At a Calvary near Ancre" which mentions a wayside calvary with the image of a crucifix and priests whose proud faces are "flesh-marked by the Beast". How few conventional performances recognize the irony!  Britten's sympathies are not with the Church. This Libera Me was driven by powerful forces indeed. Gritton's voice marked the choppy, deliberately breathless excitement which culminated in a glorious  crescendo.  Insistent tappings in the orchestra, machine-gun staccato deployed with purpose, mixing death and transition. A transformative Liberation indeed. We've passed through Owen's "profound dark tunnel"  (a reverse of birth) into a new , strange plane of existence where earthly enmities have no meaning. Listen to the quiet drone behind Spence's voice on the rebroadcast,  it's very atmospheric. The baritone's final words need no accompaniment. Müller-Brachmann intoned the words "I am the enemy you killed" so it felt personal. At the culmination of his War Requiem, Britten brings back the youthful chorus, the blending of orchestra, organ, massed voices and soloists suggesting a glorious rebirth, a bright new tapestry looking forwards. This time, when we hear the bells and the words "Requiem Aeternam", we are on another plane.  Best Prom of the 2014 season so far!

Please explore my other posts on Britten and Britten's War Requiem on the BBC Proms and on war. More on this site about Britten than any non-dedicated site

Please also see Claire Seymour's review in Opera Today

photo of Andris Nelsons : Marco Borggreve

Concert That Shall Not Be Named

"It was like staying at a small provincial hotel in the 1970's"

quoth a friend of a Concert That Shall Not Be Named.


Thursday, 21 August 2014

Anna Netrebko Il trovatore Salzburg

Interviewed by Austrian TV just before her performnac as Leonora in Verdi Il Trovatore at Salzburg, Anna Netrebko says "Leave me alone!" She's made up and costumed just before curtain call and the interviewer asks her auf Deutsch about the difficulties of the role. "That's why I need to concentrate in this hour, I don't need lots of people around." But she's gracious and smiles and gives the guy something for the camera.

Singing Leonora "is difficult because it needs such a range, and several styles, over two octaves, from a light coloratura to almost mezzo soprano. So it's better that I can concentrate  and be careful with my vocal technique."  In this production she plays two roles, a woman in a  museum and Leonora. "This is a good idea. It has a modern twist and it looks very beautiful aesthetically and it doesn't disturb the music, which is the most important thing of all."

When Netrebko was younger she used to draw and paint. She would still do so if she could but she's just too busy. "No time, no inspiration - if you have no inspiration, then it's mmmmmmm" she smiles.  Watch the production on medici TV here.



Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Lest we forget - Bleuet Poulenc

Just as the Poppy symbolizes war to the British, the cornflower symbolizes loss and memory for the French. The Western Front was in France and Belgium, lest we forget....... French soldiers wore blue uniforms, hence the multiple connotations of the word "bleuet".

At right, Francis Poulenc aged 21, in uniform, painted by a friend. "Jeune homme /de vingt ans /Qui as vu des choses si affreuses /que penses-tu des hommes /de ton enfance/la bravure et la ruse" wrote Guillaume Apollinaire. Read the whole poem HERE in Emily Ezust's Lieder and Song Texts page, because Apollinaire sets the poem out so it descends diagonally across the page, as if the very words were marching. Apollinaire's visual layout emphasises the meaning of the poem,where phrases break off and the word "Mourir" stands alone.

"Young man of 20 , who has seen things so awful, what do you think of  the men of your childhood, of courage and cunning?

"You who have faced death in the face more than 100 times, you take it as if it were life.  Transmit your fearlessness to those who will come after you. Young man, you are joyful. Your memory is soaked in blood, your soul is red. with joy. You have absorbed the life of those who died next to you."

"For you it is decided.  It is 5 o'clock and you're going to die. If not better than those who went before you, at least more piously, because you know death better than you know life." 

"Ô douceur d'autrefois, Lenteur immémoriale"
.O sweetness of former times, to linger in eternity.

Apollinaire was injured badly at the front in 1917. Poulenc, writing his setting in October 1939, reflected not on militarism or glory, but on the tenderness with which Apollinaire depicted the waste of youth and life. 



Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Bells and Guns : Rachmaninov Tchaikovsky Stravinsky Gardner Prom 43


Blockbuster Prom 43, sure to be seared into the memory of all who were there. Queues round the block, punters turned away in droves. Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture s such a showpiece that it usually gets played at open-air events, complete with fireworks. the presence  of "Sexy Ed", the charismatic Edward Gardner, and the prospect of big band massed choirs and big orchestras - no wonder the Royal Albert Hall was packed to capacity.

 Musical considerations give way to sheer spectacle when it comes to the 1812. Fortunately the ghost of Sir Henry Wood and his high standards still pervades over the Proms. Hence we heard the original version with massed choirs. The BBC SO Chorus and the Crouch End Chorus balanced volume with finesse, not something easily achieved by party-piece outdoor performances. They were wonderfully hushed and reverential, creating a  suitably "Russian" atmosphere, against which the brass, percussion and cannonades seem all the more shocking.  Only at the Royal Albert Hall can  this combination of circus and music be carried off quite so well.

Rachmaninov's The Bells needs similar extravagance. Edgar Allen Poe’s original poems were substantially changed in the Russian translation of The Bells but that doesn’t matter. Rachmaninov got enough from the translation to create a new, original work that would be one of his favourites. Artists need creative licence: in The Bells, Rachmaninov creates a distinctive landscape, each scena regulated by different kinds of bell sounds. Perhaps the Russia he remembered was like that, where the rhythm of life  was accompanied by the bells of the Church, by folk festivities and so on.  Silvery sleigh bells give way to wedding bells,.Winter turns to Spring. Stuart Skelton (another good reason for catching this Prom) sang the tenor part, and Albina Shagimuratova the part of a happy bride, or perhaps, by extension, a future Mother Russia with dreams of fertility and renewal. But then something goes horribly wrong . In the presto third movement, the bells sound alarm, Do we hear flames and destruction in that dangerously wild orchestration? The choral parts were sung with discipline: even in crisis, the peasants stick together. Stillness, muffled drumbeats. then Mikhail Petrenko's powerful voice intoned, the choruses following as if in procession in his wake. Click on photo below to enlarge. It's Ilya Repin's Religious Procession at Kursk, later the scene of the biggest tank battle in world history. 

Sad woodwinds created pathos, and the sense of real wind blowing away what had gone before . Much will always be made of the techniques with which Rachmaninov creates sounds that sound like bells but are illusion. Upright piano played percussively, perhaps a very private joke coming from a virtuoso soloist turned composer. In this centenary year, our perceptions are coloured by what we know happened to Rachmaninov's Russia after he wrote the piece in 1913. Perhaps that's why, in later years, Rachmaninov would look back on The Bells as a favourite, a sort of musical icon preserving a world irrevocably changed.

Although this Prom was billed as "Russian", Gardner's style isn't  "authentically" Russian.  (I'm thinking of Svetlanov's  recording of The Bells)  National identity doesn't define art. Baiba Skride played the violin inStravinsky's Scherzo fantastique and his Concerto for Violin in D with such feeling and elegance that it didn't really matter whether Stravinsky was Russian or French or a dispossessed Russian living in America. His music is universal, stylish, whimsical and fiendishly difficult at turns.

Please keep visiting my site, always something different. Tonight Britten's War Requiem Andris nelsons - bound to be good. Please see the numerous posts Ive written on Britten War requiem (and on Britten)

Lest We Forget Prom - RVW Butterworth Stephan Kelly Manze BBC SSO


 "They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man, The lads that will die in their glory and never be old." 

 A E Housman was writing about handsome farm boys going off to the Boer War. Maybe he was more concerned with the loss of their physical beauty but Prom 42 "Lest We Forget"  with Andrew Manze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra reminded us of the lost music which the three younger composers featured in this concert might have produced.

Roderick Williams sang George Butterworth's Six Songs From a Shropshire Lad.  He never disappoints. He sang with the commitment and heroism the occasion of a keynote Prom warrants. I've written extensively about George Butterworth, (read more here) so I'll just comment on the version  we heard here. It's not strictly Butterworth but a modern orchestral adaptation. Butterworth wrote two separate pieces based on Housman's verse, one for voice and piano and an entirely orchestral version, A Shropshire Lad: a Rhapsody. where the themes are reiterated. Maybe piano song doesn't work so well in the Royal Albert Hall, but it would have been wiser to pick the orchestral piece. Much as I adore Roderick Williams, I think we need to appreciate Butterworth for more than his songs. When there is enough authentic Butterworth around, can't we "honour the fallen" by  using the man's own work?

Butterworth's orchestral A Shropshire Lad would have worked better with the rest of the programme too, especially with Rudi Stephan's Music for Orchestra no. 2 (1912, rev. 1913), Stephan's breakthrough piece which won him a publisher and a lot of favourable attention. It's superb. It's full of interesting ideas, crafted together with flair: definitely a distinctive voice. Listen to the rebroadcast : this isn't recycled retro but intelligent and highly original, reflecting the creative ferment of Secession Munich, and possibly the "modern" Germany of Weimar art and, film and literature. Stephan might have given Alban Berg (also a serving soldier) a great deal to think about. Stephan is definitely on the radar in Germany. There are no less than three recordings of his opera Die ersten Menschen on the market. I'll write about that when I have time - please come back.

In contrast, Frederick Kelly's Elegy for Strings was written in memoriam Rupert Brooke. Kelly is also remembered because he was born in Sydney of Irish parents and served in Gallipoli, and is thus a figure in Australian music history. It's a lovely, elegiac piece with a good violin part, but without the character of Stephan and Butterworth.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was too old to fight in the frontline but served in an ambulance unit, experiencing bombardment knowing he'd have to go out and pick up the carnage. Vaughan Williams's Symphony no 3 "The Pastoral"  may be "about " landscape in an abstract sense, but it's even more about the strange, new landscape of the trenches. Ancient farms and villages were flattened, pitted with craters like the moon. The terrain still hasn't recovered.  RVW's ambiguous swirling tonality suggests psychic dislocation. This isn't "cowpat school", though you can "feel" the mud. It's far more unsettling.

RVWs 3rd is a companion to his 2nd, the "London" Symphony, dedicated  to and inspired by George Butterworth, so hearing the 3rd at this Prom was particularly poignant. Andrew Manze and the BBC SSO  gave a dignified account. An excellent "distant" trumpet, and nicely defined references to typical RVW themes expressing nostaglia and, well, Sensucht,  and loss. Unusually, Manze used a tenor, Allan Clayton to sing the vocal part. A male voice is probably more appropriate in the circumstances  and RVW knew his Bible well enough to know that angels were often men. The trumpet can be diffuse, since RVW was remembering a real trumpeter playing in the landscape. But the dead and dying were all too present. Clayton's "manly" tenor rang out loud and clear. No, we must not shy from the reality of war. There's violence in the crescendi, and folk tunes pop up as  ghosts. Perhaps the voice, like the violin part, loosely reminiscent of The Lark Ascending, is reminding us that life, and nature, will soar upwards from the ruins.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The mystery of George Butterworth

Roderick Williams sang George Butterworth Songs from A Shropshire Lad at tonight's BBC Prom 41 at the Royal Albert Hall. Williams is by far the best best British song specialist around. He has such a warm. conversational style which makes his singing direct and personal. (Read more here) .For my review of the Lest We Forget Prom read here).

The photo at right show George Butterworth  in civilian days. Read Michael Barlow's biography "Whom the Gods Love," (more here)  It's good, given the sparsity of source material. Butterworth was a very private person, and shielded himself from such things as prying historians. There are so many mysteries. Why did he destroy his unpublished music when he went to the front? There are no Butterworth descendants any more - George and his only male cousin died without issue. So perhaps we could  use modern intuition and reflect.

Butterworth's father's archives are in Oxford, but they're not completely reliable because they were compiled by a man who loved his son dearly but probably didn't understand his complexities any more than he understood military procedure. After reading Barlow's book I went to the War Office Archives to read regimental documents. Shock! No "Butterworth" listed!  However, being a good archivist, I think like a detective. I found the original war diary kept by the commanding officer of Butterworth's unit, where each day's events were written as they happened, sometimes in pencil.  I found the actual record of Butterworth's death. Read my account "George Butterworth in the trenches" . I also found his original medal citations by searching under his third forename, Kaye. Somehow, by accident or design, he had been listed as Kaye-Butterworth rather than Butterworth when he signed up.

Finding the war diary is easy enough because British officers' records are extensively documented. But that started another mystery. His fellow soldiers didn't even know he was a musician.  He wasn't actively hiding anything because the army contacted his father after his death. But one wonders who Butterworth might really have been. An Oxford don, on seeing the student Butterworth with a friend, remarked that they were two of the "reddest" revolutionaries in Britain.

Why was Butterworth keen to keep his lives as soldier and composer apart? Was he gay, or conflicted about his father's remarriage ?  By the standards of his time, A E Housman was about as much out of the closet as was possible. The poems in his collection of A Shropshire Lad are heavily homo-erotic. Obviously, orientation doesn't dictate art. The very hetero Ralph Vaughan Williams's On Wenlock Edge is based on Housman's poems too.  But one wonders what Butterworth might have achieved had he not been killed so young. Would he have stayed in the Cecil Sharp fold  with its repressive neo-fascist style? Would he have found a creative breakthrough like RVW? RVW adored him. His  London Symphony was inspired by Butterworth, who pushed RVW towards symphonic writing.  Even Carlos Kleiber liked Butterworth's orchestral music. We shall never know what Butterworth might have achieved,  but I suspect we shouldn't assume that Butterworth was "simply" a writer of folk-inspired songs and pastorals.

Fragile but powerful - Haitink Mahler 4, Schubert Prom 40


" I prefer Mahler slender, not pompous" said Bernard Haitink in rehearsals before BBC Prom 40 2014.  By "slender" I think he means the opposite of pompous, ie. not overinflated, egotistic, or self-satisfied. "Slender" is relevant in the context of Mahler's Symphony no 4 , because the children in Das himmlisches Leben are enjoying food with almost manic glee.  (read my article "Why greedy kids in Mahler 4") These children have been deprived of sustenance so long that all they can think of is the simple needs the rest of us take for granted.  At this time, children are starving to death on mountains in Iraq; other children are dying in Gaza; and millions more children will grow up to die in conflicts all round the world. Mahler's Symphony no 4 is utterly relevant today.

Haitink's less-is-more conducting style is utterly relevant too. In many ways, the Mahler annivesrary year set Mahler appreciation back to the Dark Ages. Just as we were coming to understand the sensitive, intellectual side of Mahler, the festivities brought a slough of bland performances. Commercial pressures usually override artistic needs. Good conductors have to conduct  Mahler even if they have nothing to say, because what promoters want is what sells, and that often means "generic".  When Haitink says there's too much Mahler around, I think he means that there's too much non-Mahler Mahler. Take heed, BBC Proms!  The more audiences are fed mediocrity, the more they mistake musical fast food for nutrition.  Many times in the last few years, I've felt like the lone dissident in a mass public rally.  Perhaps Haitink is swimming against an unstoppable tide, but he's a man of courage and integrity.

Bedächtig. Nicht eilen and In gemächlicher bewungen. Ohne hast : Mahler's score markings suit Haitink's trademark slow tempi. No need to rush, but rather linger in the present, or more accurately, perhaps, in memories of a sunnier past.  Haitink shapes the oddly dance-like rhythms so they feel airy, more  like the innocent way children dance than heavy-footed Ländler. Such deft lightness from the LSO, who love Haitink and know his style well. When Mahler introduces "winds of change" the strings and brass take on a melancholy mood, as if they don't want the happiness to end.  Gradually, a darker mood emerges. Haitink's attention to detail lets us hear the soft plodding"foosteps" behind the panoramic legato. Nocturnal images perhaps, or images of death? In the rising woodwind melody can we hear a hint of Kindertotenlieder?  Is Mahler saying goodbye to his Wunderhorn years, in preparation for the next phase in his creative life?

From this emerges the solo violin motif, at first sweetly seductive. But, like the Pied Piper, this music leads to death. This particular Freund' Hein underplayed the grotesque scordatura tuning, but his was in keeping with Haitink's emphasis on the goal towards which the symphony is heading. The Third Movement (marked Ruhevoll) is a transition, a purgatory in which the issues of death are resolved into a more perfect "heavenly life". Hence the variations and contemplation, from which the soloist (Camilla Tilling) emerges, almost seamlessly from the music around her. 

Tilling's voice doesn't have quite the pure, angelic ping of, say, Christine Schäfer, but she's been singing this part for nearly 20 years and her experience shows. She may not be ideally child-like, but she's a spokesperson, reaching out to the parents of the dead children, perhaps, consoling them with images of happiness. Most people don't want children to suffer. Even if the parents of these children themselves died in famines or wars, faith in a better afterlife gives some kind of comfort. Haitink's poignant interpretation emphasized the fragility of human existence. missiles crash and people die on barren mountainsides; we are vulnerable in a savage world.  I could hardly breathe as I listened. Yet, as Mahler and Haitink remind us: “Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, die uns’rer verglichen kann werden,”  No music on Earth can compare to the music of Heaven. We can but hope.

As he's done several times in the past, including with the LSO at the Barbican in 2009, Haitink preceded Mahler 4 with Schubert's Symphony no 5, an early piece written when Schubert was still little more than a child.  Haitink brought out the purity in the orchestration, linking the symphony to the deceptive simplicity of Schubert's Lieder and chamber music. i thought of Schubert, full of dreams and ambition, cruelly cut down aged only 29.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Sibelius Maxwell Davies Bridge Storgårds Prom 38


Like Prom 36, (more here) Prom 38 demonstrated why some composers are first rank while others aren't. John Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic in a programme which contrasted  Jean Sibelius and Frank Bridge with Sir Peter Maxwell Davis.

Finlandia effectively changed the course of world history.  Although Sibelius dashed it off quite quickly, it became an instant hit, and remains so popular that it symbolizes the spirit of Finland. It helped shape national identity. Those craggy chords suggest dark forests, deep lakes and mountains that cannot be conquered.  Like the landscape, dogged Finland will survive hard winters and brutal enemies. But Finnish independence very nearly didn't happen since the Russians were far more powerful. Finlandia, and Sibelius, captured support in the west, even though Finland was forced to side with the Germans against Stalin. Ten minutes of music that created a nation: such is the power of music with emotional intensity. Storgårds conducted with such committment that the piece felt ferocious, as shocking as it must have sounded when new.

In Finlandia, Sibelius finds a unique voice. Storgårds also conducted Sibelius Symphony no 2, where Sibelius's distinctive style emerges clearly. We hear the composer's distinctive hallmarks: immediately we recognize that this is a composer with exceptional originality. Indeed, it's possible that Sibelius entered the "silence of Järvenpää" because he could envision ideas so daring that he couldn't fulfil them without compromising his standards. Lesser artists might have chosen an easier path. Not Sibelius, who burned the symphony that might have been his life achievement. Storgårds's approach emphasized this strength of personality in the music. He delineated the vernal, Romantic passages but recognized the forward momentum, stressing the overall flow and structure. The BBC Philharmonic seemed galvanized, producing a performance so electrifying that the BBC really should give him a much higher profile. Most of their Proms outings this year have been disappointingly lacklustre.  This is basically a good orchestra, but it needs to be inspired to reach its full potential.

Between the twin pillars of Sibelius, Storgårds placed Peter Maxwell Davies and Frank Bridge. Once, Max,  Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr were the great new hopes of British music. Birtwistle continues writing highly individual, distinctive music, but Maxwell Davies' output in recent years hasn't been quite so impressive. It 's not at all simply fashion, since Max gets a lot of exposure. Indeed, now that Birtwistle is so successful, Max's star has risen, although the pair allegedly fell out years ago.   They're both 80 this year; one could hardly praise one and leave out the other. When Maxwell Davies Symphony no 5 premiered at the Proms in 1995, it was well received, but one does rather wonder if the support was for the man rather than the music. It's pleasant enough, but meanders without much direction, even conducted by someone as good as Storgårds. One longs for the old days, of Eight Songs for a Mad King or even The Yellowcake Revue.

And then Frank Bridge, very much the outsider of British music in his era. Bridge was more interested in musical developments in continental Europe than in England, and didn't mix very much in British music circles. Had he, he might have attracted more attention. Bridge never has been really forgotten, though he's often best known through the Benjamin Britten connection. This doesn't diminish him at all, because what Bridge taught Britten was to have wide horizons. Bridge himself had been taught by Charles Villiers Stanford, so he knew all about teachers who strangled young composers from birth. True creatives, like Vaughan Williams, found their voice when they got out from under Stanford's shadow. Bridge found his independence by turning to Europe and America.  It's significant that Britten should make a point of writing Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. Bridge was a role model, giving Britten the courage to be independent and have integrity. 

Bridge's Oration (1929/30) shows another side of the composer's values, which he shared with Britten. It's not his only anti-war piece. Blow Out you Bugles (much earlier) uses the poetry of Rupert Brooke.  Oration is a a "concerto elegaico". where the cello acts as orator addressing the orchestra but the orchestra don't take heed. Anguished, the cello mutters and growls. Leonard Elschenbroich played expressively, creating the mood of frustration and pain.  Appropriate tension between him and the orchestra.  Oration is unique, a very sophisticated and individualistic work, far more interesting than the very early chamber pieces with which Bridge is generally associaited. Better, I think, that a composer should be respected for distinctively original works than for writing for the sake of writing. 

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Vaughan Williams Alwyn Oramo Prom 36


After ten days of safe but dull Proms, at last something splendid: Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC SO. Ralph Vaughan Williams's incidental music is far from incidental. William Alwyn wrote a lot of incidental music, but hearing his symphonic work with Vaughan Williams's incidental music puts it into context

Oramo conducts Vaughan Williams with an intensity that makes one appreciate the depths in RVW, often missed by the emphasis on the pastoral aspects of his work. The Overture to the Wasps dates from the same period as On Wenlock Edge, and marks RVW's creative breakthrough   Maurice Ravel liberated Vaughan Williams from himself, so to speak. No longer is he constrained by the comfortable certainties of Charles Villiers Stanford.  He'd learned "to orchestrate in points of colour rather than in lines", to be an artist foremost and above all.  Having faced that baptism of fire, he would go on to become a true original, reimagining the English experience in his own unique way.

Although The Wasps was written before the start of WWI, its subject is war. These aren't bucolic wasps buzzing around a nest, even though the composer depicts them figuratively. The famous Overture comes from a much larger piece for voice and orchestra, based on Aristophanes' The Birds. The Birds mock man's obsession with war, and the wasps protest. When wasps are disturbed, they attack. In Germany, Walter Braunfels (who served at the front) would soon begin Die Vögel, a work sadly misunderstood by conductors like James Conlon. Oramo emphasizes the suppressed violence in RVW. A lyrical melody hovers, harps suggesting peaceful reverie. The mood is soon broken. Sharp, crisp ostinato, an almost "Russian" angularity, whirring figures like a march. Are the wasps flying upwards in attack?

If only the BBC could have given us the full Wasps, rather than the disembodied Overture. It's utterly relevant this year when we remember 1914. Instead, we had William Alwyn's Symphony no 1. Alwyn is hardly obscure, even though he's not been heard at the Proms for 50 years. His work is well represented on recordings, and familiar to those who enjoy the Golden Age of British cinema. Like many other composers of his period, Alwyn wrote for film.  Alwyn's Symphony no 1 is ambitious, part of a grand scheme of related symphonies. Allusions to technicolor panoramas are approrpiate because the piece unfolds in a series of attractive vignettes which translate easily into visual images. Low, growling basses, giving way to open spaces, sudden surges of strings introducing changes of scene. It's picturesque and relaxing, so its appeal is easily appreciated.  On the other hand, it's illustrative, amiable rather than thought-provoking.  RVW can  say more in ten minutes, almost without trying.  It's totally irrelevant that Alwyn lived in Blythburgh while Britten lived in Aldeburgh. There are sections of the British music audience who need heroes for their own reasons, and don't necessarily do their heroes any favours.  Alwyn is not an incidental composer, but he's more genial than genius..

RVW's The Lark Ascending, however, is a true masterpiece, a work of such brilliance that it defies category. It is so beautiful, and so transcendent that it's almost pointless to analyze.  Perhaps RVW is describing a bird in flight, but that bird is escaping from the world into another more rarified plane of existence. It's exquisite, but also inexplicably, heart breakingly sad. It's much more than an "English Idyll", since it appeals to so many, and in different cultures.  Janine Jensen's performance was good, though there have been other, more powerful interpretations. Oramo's clear focus on the details in the orchestration brought out the connections between Tle Lark Ascending and The Wasps. Interesting insight.

Vaughan Williams's Job : a Masque for Dancing  (1931) was written to be danced to, yet it's no more a conventioinal ballet  than The Pilgrim's Progress is a typical opera. Dancers need more rests than orchestral players, so much music for dance evolves in scenic episodes. This also suits RVW's taste for the formality of Elizabethan music. Although I don't have the programme notes to quote from, and I don't feel like digging up a CD, I'm pretty sure, from memory, that Oramo was conducting the full  score, rather than the version for dancing. It's not a symphony, though the sound is full and rich, because it evolves in a series of scenes. Thus, however, it made a satisfying conclusion to the Prom, following as it did from Alwyn's Symphony. Listen how RVW defines "cinematic" climaxes. Even as audio, one imagines visual and dancers.  And from this emerges a solo violin, playing an elusive, nostalgic melody.  The Wasps, The Lark Ascending and Job: a Masque for Dancing have been heard together before, but Oramo reminds us why the combination is so good.