ENDNOTES, 23rd May, 2017
In this edition: A Mass for Modern Man; Cesar Franck, Violin Sonata in A Major; Elgar and Delius Quartets; Over the Plains, by George Antheil
Ståle Kleiberg (b. 1958) is a Norwegian composer not well known to British audiences – although his works, often dealing with the issues of warfare and persecution, have been performed to great acclaim in the United States. A new CD (on the Lindberg Lyd label) may well serve to bring Kleiberg’s music more to the fore in our country: his Mass for Modern Man – sumptuously and meticulously recorded in the state-of-the-art Olavshallen in Trondheim – revealing a modern-music voice rooted in tonality and moral clarity.
The traditional mass, or requiem, is used by Kleiberg, but it is interspersed with thoughts on contemporary themes by British writer, Jessica Gordon – the loss of a homeland, the plight of a refugee, the loss of faith itself. Surprisingly, the mood of the music is mainly thoughtful and soothing – as opposed to strident or atonal – which one might have expected from someone dealing with modern angst. Possibly the closest comparison is with the work of Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. The eight sections of the Mass seem to balance the old and the new; with affirmation (the Gloria and Agnus Dei) co-existing with “loss of faith” – thus allowing both believers and atheists to find meaning and beauty in the score.
The Trondheim Symphony Orchestra and Choir perform the work with great feeling and power, with conductor, Eivind Gullberg Jensen, and soloists Mari Eriksmoen (soprano) and Johannes Weisser (baritone) contributing enormous commitment and artistry to this disc. Recording producer, Morten Lindberg, is to be highly commended. Detailed notes and diagrams dominate the CD booklet, explaining everything from the positioning of the orchestral players to the balancing of microphones for the recording sessions.
On a much smaller scale, but nonetheless finely recorded, are two new discs from Somm and Chandos respectively, placing Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major centre-stage. Somm’s performers are Guillaume Combet (violin) and the American pianist (Oberlin Conservatory – Juilliard School) Sandra Carlock. The four movement sonata – with its popular, instantly recognisable allegretto finale – is played with love and care, the performers finding all its late-romantic-era lyrical solitude and wistful tenderness. You are transported to the Belgian or French countryside, with an autumnal atmosphere, but without descending into melancholia. Franck’s sonata never wallows, but is full of shade, colour and purpose – the music telling a clear story, infused (as is Dvorak’s music) with that “conversational” touch and instant contact with the listener.
The Chandos label’s version of the Franck Sonata is performed by Tasmin Little and Piers Lane, and it is not possible to come down in favour of one version versus another. However, Tasmin Little brings a concerto-like virtuoso spirit to her interpretation – her well-known brilliance and expressive range providing brightness of sound and illumination. Somm’s Guillaume Combet offers us an equally beautiful sound, but one sensed more of the “chamber” spirit – a more marked “vintage” in his rendition – so it is this version which one might turn to if a greater introspection is being sought. All in all, two equally brilliant CDs.
The American composer, George Antheil, was considered an enfant terrible of American 20th century music. He was fascinated by the industrial and mechanised society, and there is a Soviet feel (echoes of Shostakovich and Prokofiev) to his orchestral scores. His Ballet Mécanique from the early 1920s was a bold attempt – no doubt much envied by today’s diehard atonalists – to fuse the pounding rhythms of Stravinsky with the din of aeroplane engines and other thundering noises. But Antheil was also an American patriot, as his seven-minute-long 1945 piece, Over the Plains, testifies. Here is the music of the U.S. heartland – Copland’s big country and wide spaces (which we know from Appalachian Spring or Billy the Kid) but with a more audacious modernism in the background. There is a misterioso section to the work, but plenty of lively, folk-related ideas, as we traverse victorious America at the war’s end.
Performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Sibelius and Nielsen specialist, John Storgards, two other Antheil works appear on this ear-catching Chandos CD: the Symphony No. 4 ‘1942’ and the Symphony No. 5 ‘Joyous’ (from 1948). Again, the influence of Shostakovich is here, but merged with a sense of American destiny and belief.
Finally, to a world of sunlight and pastoralism: the String Quartet of 1918 by Sir Edward Elgar – the product of a time of refuge and reflection in the woodland of Sussex, towards the end of the Great War. Lady Elgar believed that her husband had “captured” sunshine in the second movement of the work, and in a new recording on the Naxos label by the Villiers Quartet, we see why. Yet the Elgar quartet is not just wood-magic and communing with air and light: the opening of the final Allegro molto movement has an tense quality, similar to one of Elgar’s on-edge marches (the third Pomp and Circumstance March, perhaps). A torrent of ideas flows, and the work ends in glorious, energetic style.
For Delius, who lived in France, the First World War might have inspired a sorrowful score – a lament, perhaps, similar to the war works of Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney, or George Butterworth. Delius did indeed write a Requiem and was greatly moved by the sight of the wounded soldiers returning from the front line, but his String Quartet in E minor from 1917 reveals a composer glad to be reunited with his garden and “late swallows” (the name of one of the quartet’s movements) at Grez-sur-Loing. Delius and his wife came back to England as the war engulfed northern France, but they returned to France in 1915 – and they noted: “Our garden was so terribly neglected so were are both working in it every afternoon, no gardener is to be had. Otherwise one does not feel the war here whatever.”
Ever the pantheist and nature-worshipper, Delius evidently inhabited a world far removed from modern man and his soulless, mechanised society.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review