ENDNOTES, September 2014
In this edition: a report from the Proms: William Mathias and Elgar, and composers of the Great War * Coronation music from Somm Records * Classic Sibelius from Iceland.
For conductor Mark Wigglesworth, Sir Edward Elgar’s First Symphony of 1908 was made for the Royal Albert Hall – a surging work for large orchestra, with a slow movement of peace and ease-of-heart, filling the high, wide spaces of the great Kensington concert hall. Interviewed in this year’s Proms prospectus, Mr. Wigglesworth talks of the work’s many qualities: it was first championed by the Wagner conductor, Hans Richter (who described Elgar as “this English genius”); and how a fine-line needs to be observed today when conducting Elgar, between sentiment and sentimentality. (In our rather cynical age, Elgar’s great gift for pure melody and national emotion sparks an automatic smirk or suspicion from some – hence, perhaps, the constant need for conductors and performers to speak of their need to “refresh” Elgar performances and look at the composer anew.)
However, no matter what is said about Sir Edward, the music always seems to stand up and stand on its own, touching audiences with its irresistible, persuasive, hard-to-define heart-and-soul; music that really does speak to you in your own language – genuinely telling a story, taking you with it, and never leaving you guessing about what might be meant. The famous nobilmente introduction of the symphony – a soft-tread, slow-march theme – builds to a great re-statement of the tune from the whole orchestra, with horns and brass rising and glinting above the swell of strings. Some readers may be familiar with Sir Adrian Boult’s, Vernon Handley’s or Bryden Thomson’s, landmark recordings of the work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and will know of the huge role for brass players that those records clearly reveal. And yet for the Proms performance with Mark Wigglesworth, his ensemble – the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – brought something of a change of mood; playing the opening with a deep softness, almost a sigh – the same noble strength, but the tune having something of a benediction about it.
Prior to the Elgar, the audience was treated to a rare outing for the William Mathias Violin Concerto, Mathias being one of Wales’s foremost composers of the 20th century. Soloist Matthew Trusler enthralled everyone by truly getting under the skin of the concerto, a piece which had something of the heavy weather and unsettling skies of Britten’s concerto, but with, possibly, a darkening Welsh landscape here and there – especially in one craggy trombone passage – a taut, demanding work.
Composers often seem to have the gift of prophecy, or at least, they seem to pick up what is “in the air” – but Elgar’s First Symphony seems to have no trace of the menace of European conflict which would rumble in the distance as the world edged closer to 1914. However, his Coronation March of 1911, newly-recorded by the Somm label, takes us into a mood, not of glory for a Royal occasion written in an optimistic key, but an uncertain, yearning, even austere, slow march – as if we were walking toward one of Wilfred Owen’s Western Front skies or ridges (such as the foreboding atmosphere and place described in his poem, Spring Offensive – “sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass/Fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass…”). I wonder what King George V or the coronation onlookers must have thought of this march? Elgar once said… “we walk like ghosts”, and in this piece of ceremonial music, we find exactly what the writer W.B. Yeats termed: “Elgar’s heroic melancholy”. The piece is despatched for Somm Records in great, martial style – with solemn, piercing woodwind sounds – by the London Symphonic Concert Band, conducted by Tom Higgins. Full marks to Somm’s sound engineers for the way in which they have captured the sense of time and occasion, not just of the Elgar, but a rich, rare and surprising array of royal music – some of it written by the American, Sousa (his march, Imperial Edward, from 1901), and a Coronation March – again for Victoria’s son and heir – by the French romantic master, Saint-Saens.
Returning to the Proms (and this performance is available on the BBC Radio i-player until about the second week of September), the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Manze performed a Sunday-night programme of music by composers from England, Germany and Australia, who served in, and – apart from Vaughan Williams, whose “Pastoral Symphony” ended the concert – lost their lives during the First World War. Baritone Roderick Williams sang George Butterworth’s songs from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad – the BBC Scottish players softly accompanying their guest soloist, so that not one word was lost or drowned. Although written well before The Great War, the Housman poetry, which evokes rural Shropshire (“the lads in their hundreds” at Ludlow fair, ploughboys, the road to the Welsh Marches in moonlight) – conveys a sense of a once happy breed – noble and “handsome of heart” – obliterated in the blasted landscapes of a faraway war. That war also claimed the life of Frederick Kelly, an Australian romantic composer (also an athlete, rowing champion and friend of Rupert Brooke), and Rudi Stephan, a 28-year-old – born in the Grand Duchy of Hesse – killed by a bullet through the brain whilst fighting the Russians on the German Eastern Front in 1915. Stephan’s Music for Orchestra of 1912 opened this memorial Proms concert – a revelation for most of the audience, if not the orchestra, as very little of this remarkable man’s music is known or even in existence. (Surviving remnants of his comparatively small output were actually destroyed in bombing raids during the Second World War.)
Fortunately, we are able to enjoy a glimpse of the great musical horizons that might have been through this 1912 piece – a work that clearly stands in the shadow of Richard Strauss, or Mahler, but which has a somewhat lighter, quicker touch than either of those great Titans: Stephan taking us into a “sommerwind” of Webern-like early-20th-century late-romanticism, rather than overwhelming his audience in a Straussian-Wagnerian Alpine forest. Had Stephan lived, had the war not happened, Sir Henry Wood’s Proms would undoubtedly have been filled with the symphonic music of Stephan, alongside – even possibly exceeding Mahler; and with his English contemporary, Butterworth – as great a figure, perhaps, as Vaughan Williams.
Finally, Endnotes goes to Finland, or rather to Iceland, for a Reykjavik-recorded performance of Sibelius’s suites, King Christian ll and Pelléas et Mélisande (with the rare fairytale, Swanwhite, Op. 47 also included). Under conductor, Petri Sakari – who has made a great speciality of Sibelius (the incidental music for The Tempest on Naxos records is one of the most haunting Sibelius performances on record) – this Chandos collection takes us to “the Castle Gate” itself; to a monumental, yet delicate, old-world side of the composer – and readers may remember the theme music to Patrick Moore’s television programme The Sky at Night (the movement, At the Castle Gate, from the Pelleas score). The Iceland Symphony Orchestra is entirely at one with this music; the intimate, sometimes folk-spirited tunes being played with a chamber-like thoughtfulness and finesse. This is an outstanding issue – and ideal music for this poignant end-of-summer season.
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review.