ENDNOTES, 13th September 2016
In this edition: historic Elgar recordings from Somm, “Our revels now are ended” – contemporary work by Jonathan Dove that concluded the 2016 Proms season
Somm Records continues to offer the slightly unusual and often unexpected classical repertoire, and you might say that a new disc featuring Elgar’s Cello Concerto somewhat contradicts that policy. However, when the Elgar in question is taken from recordings made in the late-1920s and early-1930s by the composer himself, Somm’s choice of music becomes clearer. Set out across four CDs (with a detailed and fascinating booklet on the whole enterprise by musicologist and audio engineer, Lani Spahr), the performances – some of which include various “takes” and test pressings made by the original recording company – are a model of digital remastering and restoration. Another remarkable find from the archive is a private HMV Record made by cellist, Beatrice Harrison, of the third movement – accompanied at the piano by a member of the Royal Family, HRH Princess Victoria. The Cello Concerto is not, however, the only work to appear: the two completed symphonies, and the 1932 Menuhin performance of the Violin Concerto, also provide a window into Elgar’s sound-world, and into the performance styles of the time (often with a quick tempo – with little sign of the slowed-down grandeur we find in some Elgar concerts today).
A further poignant inclusion is the selection from the early cantata, Caractacus (a chivalric piece set in Elgar’s beloved ancient Worcestershire landscape) – performed by Lawrance Collingwood and the London Symphony Orchestra, and actually relayed by “Telephone Office lines” to the composer in the South Bank Nursing Home Worcester in the last years of his life. But what is truly intriguing about Lani Spahr’s quest to dust down these records from 85 years ago is his stumbling across the concept of “accidental stereo”. Apparently, in some recording sessions from the earliest years of the industry, two separate sets of recording apparatus (microphones and cutters) were used – the second being used as a back-up. In discovering the second pressing, and in researching carefully how microphones were used at each recording, Lani has been able to provide an often startlingly modern sound throughout the collection – an extraordinary endeavour which will appeal to anyone with a curiosity about technical development, or who values an almost living link with Elgar and his time.
The Quarterly Review has, of late, been busy at the Royal Albert Hall, reviewing the 122nd season of Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, which have been run by the BBC since 1927. The last week of the season saw several powerful performances by visiting artists, not least the famous Dresden Staatskapelle (an orchestra founded in 1548 by the Elector of Saxony). Under the baton of the eminent Wagnerian, Christian Thielemann, the orchestra performed two contrasting and yet linked works: Mozart’s profoundly classical (in the true sense of the word – the era of its creation being the 18th century) Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, and the Wagner-inspired Symphony No. 3 in D minor by Bruckner (the 1876-7 version of the work made by Leopold Nowak). Yet Bruckner’s life as a church organist, which imbued him with a love of sacred music and the music of previous centuries – including the works of Mozart – finds a place in the Third Symphony, and in many of his other great works. (There is a moment in the Fifth Symphony, for example, in which light seems to radiate through the string playing – a clear reminder of a phrase and idea near the opening of Mozart’s Requiem.) Bruckner, despite the great nobility of his romantic writing and brass chorales – with tension and stress swirling at the edges of those great arches of sound, particularly in each scherzo movement – is also capable of long periods of pizzicato quiet and solitary reflection.
In both the Mozart (piano soloist, Daniil Trifonov) and the Bruckner, Thielemann and the Staatskapelle tended to opt for a slower, carefully-paced passage through the music – the first movement of the Mozart pleasingly building up by degree, allowing us to appreciate the subtle, eloquent gear-changes, and dramas of those serious, maestoso ideas. The reading of Bruckner’s Third – whilst not overpowering the audience with brassy momentum or reaching those transcendent heights – nevertheless had a fine sense of growth and nobility, especially in the finale. For most of the scherzo (save for the charming, swaying village-type dance section) and the opening of the last movement, the conductor took a thrilling, rushing approach; but this was more an exercise in letting the music find its own level – rather than a maestro pushing the work to breaking point. Hearing the deep, Germanic Dresden sound was a delight, and it also served the smaller-scale Mozart very well – a pleasant contrast to slimmer, period performances which are often all the rage.
Something of a period feel was aimed at on the penultimate night of the Proms in Verdi’s Requiem (written 1873-4) with Marin Alsop conducting what seemed like an augmented Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (specialists in early to mid-19th century repertoire) – with the choral contribution provided by the upliftingly firm-toned and talented BBC Proms Youth Choir (chorus-master, Simon Halsey). Soloists Tamara Wilson, soprano, Alisa Kolosova, mezzo, and Morris Robinson, bass, projected their voices well into the great space and height of the Royal Albert Hall – and all deserve the highest praise. But I could not help feeling that Dimitri Pittas, tenor (making his Proms debut, along with Kolosova and Robinson) had the edge, especially in the well-known Dies Irae. Returning to the role of the orchestra – the OAE forces, lighter in tone than, say, the London Symphony or New York Philharmonic, played with authority and gravity, their doleful, clear trombones, especially, creating the requisite feeling of souls pausing to contemplate in dark, sombre surroundings. But I did miss the heavier undertow of a non-period orchestra, and whilst it was instructive to hear the music as it would have been performed in the composer’s era, we ought to be thankful that the symphony orchestra has developed and changed in the way it has – providing us with greater colour, tone and weight.
Finally, to the Last Night of the Proms, which featured two exciting contemporary pieces: Raze – a dazzling BBC-commissioned curtain-raiser by 25-year-old Scottish composer, Tom Harrold – intended as a showpiece for the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble (with BBC SO leader, Stephen Bryant, playing in the ranks) – and, in complete contrast, Jonathan Dove’s Our revels now are ended (written in 2004, but revised for tonight’s larger orchestral and vocal forces). A fitting title for the end-of-season ritual, the work is a ten-minute-long dreamscape, based upon Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
“…The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded…”
Duncan Rock, baritone, (with superb diction) sang these words of the mystic character, Prospero, magus of his enchanted island – the work creating a sense of standing on a lonely, twilight coast, time slipping through our hands. A sense of reflection continued in the second half with Vaughan Williams’s nocturne, the Serenade to Music, his tribute from 1938 to Sir Henry Wood – but from then on, assisted by tenor, Juan Diego Florez, the concert sparkled with a Donizetti aria and the swaying carnival atmosphere of a tropical Latin American medley.
A night or so before this concert, an element from the defeated ‘Remain’ side from last June’s referendum had threatened to make a political point at the Last Night, with the distribution of Euro-flags – which was odd, as during the referendum, Remain had stressed its patriotic credentials, wrapping itself in the Union Jack almost as much as the Leave faction. Slightly fearful of a conflicted atmosphere spoiling the Last Night, many concertgoers were relieved that the evening worked its usual magic – the Royal Albert Hall organ thundering out as everyone stood for Land of Hope and Glory, and the centenary performance of Parry’s visionary setting of William Blake, Jerusalem. The Swedish couple sitting behind me, waving the flag of their country, joined in. The Remain side need not have worried: a European and worldwide audience has always loved the Last Night.
STUART MILLSON is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review