ENDNOTES, 21st August 2015
Five important 20th-century works at the Proms
The 121st season of Henry Wood Promenade concerts continues its onward stride, with large audiences attracted almost every night by that potent combination of innovation, presentation of the great classics, and appearances by many outstanding artists from Britain and abroad – not to mention the unique atmosphere of the Royal Albert Hall (an atmosphere enhanced by the time-honoured rituals of Promming and the Promenaders). The Quarterly Review has been in attendance at two significant Proms this month: the BBC Philharmonic’s visit from Manchester, at which the ensemble under conductor, Juanjo Mena, performed Messiaen’s massive and mystical Turangalila Symphony, written during 1946 and 48 (and revised as recently as 1990 – two years before the composer’s death); and a rendition by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sibelius specialist, Osmo Vanska, of that composer’s last three completed symphonies – 5, 6 and 7. (An eighth symphony was sketched out by the great Finnish musical magus, but was apparently destroyed by his own hand.) Firstly, the Messiaen, played at a Prom on the 13th August.
Olivier Messiaen was a French composer who seemed to belong to no particular school or ethos, save for his own intense affiliation to his Catholic beliefs, and desire to celebrate the divine spirit – and the spirit of Nature (especially bird-song and birds), which represented for him a sense of the free soul, or as music-writer Malcolm Hayes put it: “The resurrected soul in flight”. The Turangalila Symphony is heavily influenced by Eastern mysticism, and by Sanskrit in particular – the name ‘Turangalila’ meaning: Time (Turanga) and Play or Love (Lila). There is also a nod to the ancient Tristan legend – the work having several sections which share a sensuous unity with some themes and ideas in Wagner: Tristan, of course, but also the enchanted flower garden in the second act of his Grail opera, Parsifal.
Messiaen’s symphony consists of ten movements, and he employs a massive array of percussion, which suggests Gamelan music, and a definite – but not syrupy or false –orientalism. A piano soloist is also required (in this Proms performance, Steven Osborne) and the player of a most unusual device, the ondes martenot – an electronic musical instrument, operated by a keyboard player (Valerie Hartmann-Claverie), which produces a futuristic array of mainly high-pitched waves; an owl-like woooo sound which strongly conjures a sense of floating in space, or levitating into a vast unknown realm. In the movement – the fifth – entitled Joie du sang des etoiles (Joy of the Blood of the Stars), the combination of all the forces on stage leads to a monumental peroration of unbridled power, as if Wagner, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, and Mahler’s Seventh Symphony have all been harnessed together and unleashed into a new age.
The following movement, ‘Garden of the Sleep of Love’, attains an almost narcotic quality; as if night and dreams are actually manifesting themselves – like a mist, haze, or rolling fog filling the hall. The work may have some meandering moments, but the more one listens to Messiaen, the more the listener can grasp a sense of gathering energy; of strength being stored and saved for movement No. 10 – ‘Final’. Here, the augmented BBC Philharmonic played with titanic power and beautifully-shaped eloquence, Juanjo Mena emerging as a very fine conducting talent, handling enormous quantities of musical electricity and vitality. Little wonder that he is now in demand as a major international artist. But I honestly doubt if the brass and percussion of either the Berlin Philharmonic (with which Mena will soon make his debut) or Royal Concertgebouw* orchestras could have matched the BBC Philharmonic that night.
The programme began, again in Eastern mood, with the Three Mantras by an English composer, sometimes described as a maverick, John Foulds (1880-1939) – a man who was truly ahead of his time. A British Messiaen, perhaps, but most definitely the original developer of “world music”, Foulds sought a fusion of East and West, and even went to India in search of this nirvana – organising along the way the musical forces of Indian radio. Foulds is, perhaps, best known for his international cry for peace after the Great War, A World Requiem, and for a moving, intricate and richly-coloured evocation of our native land, an “impression of time and place” entitled, April-England.
Yet the Three Mantras are very much of another time and place, and are all that remains, or so it seems, of a large-scale Hindu-inspired opera planned by this ambitious figure. The three orchestral tone-paintings convey primal energy and – with the appearance of a chorus of women’s voices (from the London Symphony Chorus) – a sense of seduction, magic and (like Neptune from Holst’s The Planets) a gentle summoning into another world.
On Monday 17th August it was the turn of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, often described as the backbone of the Proms, and the ensemble which acts as the Corporation’s international flagship orchestra (notwithstanding the great leaps and bounds made by their Manchester-based colleagues of the Philharmonic, who also have a worldwide profile). Founded in 1930 by Sir Adrian Boult, the BBC SO has always been at the vanguard of 20th-century music, and it worth remembering that it was Sir Henry Wood in the early days of the Proms who championed many of the then “new” composers, such as Sibelius, Rachmaninov and Debussy. Sibelius’s symphonies stand like great statues in music; islands, perhaps, all with very different characters, but forming an archipelago – suffused by all the drama and majesty of Northern landscapes and folklore which (even if not entirely programmatic) slip into the music.
The Fifth began the symphonic saga – the Finnish maestro, Osmo Vanska, directing a clear, impassioned performance. Yet he revealed and delighted in the detail of the work, such as the stark, knotted, almost atonal bassoon writing halfway through the complicated first movement, and other woodwind passages which are often obscured by the glow of more romantically-inclined performances – now sharp and dancing in “clear air”. The Fifth Symphony comes from the years of the First World War, begun in 1915 and revised the following year, and again in 1919. There is occasionally gloom, sometimes claustrophobia, and a cold nobility about the music; and much attention is always drawn to the great flowing, arching theme which is said to evoke swans in flight – Sibelius, like Messiaen, finding huge spiritual joy in the sight of birds on the wing. But the work succeeds in creating a deep sense of affirmation and resolution; the last minutes of the first movement, and the final movement, rushing forward in thrilling, forthright motion.
The horn section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra produced a powerful sound – a feeling of sunlight or clouds moving across great peaks; with orchestra leader, Stephen Bryant, and his large violin contingent playing with a silvery, tense and tender tone.
And an ethereal string tone is certainly needed for the Sixth Symphony, a work which has little of the elemental drive of its predecessor, but instead a more concentrated chamber-like drama; fleeting, elusive ideas which belong very much to the style of the composer’s music for a production of The Tempest, which comes from the same general period, the early to mid-1920s. The initial stages of the first movement suggest a yearning, but give way to a more vigorous, serious-toned and confident, onward-flowing passage. Dance-like motifs in the third movement, marked Poco vivace, bring relief and lightness into play, before we meet a solemn, sad theme in the finale.
The Seventh Symphony from 1924 is the summation of Sibelius’s life: a work that is neither grim, nor self-torturing or indulgently introspective, but emerges as the eloquent last will and testament of a bard – happy to follow the course of destiny and of Nature, and to share his emotions freely and easily with us all. The piece is barely over 20 minutes in length, and yet manages to express (what seem like) much lengthier ideas. The tone-poem, The Oceanides, from ten years earlier, might sit very effectively in a concert with the Seventh Symphony – both works achieving an emotional impact far beyond the usual Mahlerian timescales which we often feel “make” for a fulfilling, all-encompassing symphonic piece.
The Seventh ends abruptly, and seems to be the logical consequence of the journey through the Fifth and Sixth: a neat chapter ending, with nothing too overstated or rehashed, or missed out. For Osmo Vanska, his fellow countryman Sibelius is possibly the ultimate challenge for a recording artist and interpreter, the conductor making many CDs of his work (including the original version of the Fifth – a surprising contrast to what we know as Symphony No. 5). In the 17th August Prom, he showed us why a conductor is needed; how vital it is to control or accentuate the pulse of the music. Vanska’s conducting enthralled the Proms audience, making this a very significant evening, and one that will be remembered for many years to come.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
* Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony can be enjoyed on a first-class CD from Decca, performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, conducted by Riccardo Chailly.
The Proms performances of the Messiaen and Sibelius will be available via the BBC Radio 3 website until the middle of September. (Please see the website for exact details: www.bbc.co.uk/radio3)