ENDNOTES, 27th July 2016
In this edition: Three summer festivals – JAM on Romney Marsh * Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the BBC Proms * Brass, Welsh voices and the Royal Philharmonic at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff
The lonely, low-lying landscape of Romney Marsh in Kent lends itself to a certain type of English music, and on Thursday 14th July The QR was present at the fine old mediaeval church of St. Nicholas, New Romney for a concert of Elgar, Peter Warlock, Vaughan Williams, Britten and the contemporary composer, Paul Mealor (b. 1975). Part of the JAM Festival (an acronym which stands for John Armitage Memorial) this concert, given by the London Mozart Players and the Mousai Singers conducted by Daniel Cook, attracted a large audience – clearly keen to hear the nationally – and internationally-acclaimed LMP and a world premiere Festival commission, Paul Mealor’s intense, reflective, yet uplifting choral-orchestral, The Shadows of War. A mass, dedicated to the memory of those who perished at the Somme a century ago (and dedicated to the Festival’s Edward Armitage and to Welsh conductor, Owain Arwel Hughes), the composer sets both the traditional liturgy and the words of poet, Dr. Grahame Davies.
Beginning with a chiming bell – like the sound, perhaps, of a distant Marshland church summoning the faithful – Mealor created a slow, chant-like introduction, almost mediaeval in feel – the soprano section raising up great arches of sound; their emphatic words “eleison” adding to the celebratory, tumbling phrases of the strings, reminiscent of the great surge of violins hurtling up and down the scales in Elgar’s orchestration of Parry’s Jerusalem. A bright Gloria – with cymbals and timpani – evoked the optimistic choral music of William Mathias; and the Sanctus took us into the world of Vaughan Williams or Gabriel Fauré. A sustained, but subtle timpani roll created an undercurrent of tension – a section which could even mirror the “strange meeting” of World War l poet, Wilfred Owen: “Blessed is the stranger in the street, blessed the beloved at the door/Blessed the ally and the enemy…”
A Janacek-like confidence and energy later manifested itself, reminiscent of the Glagolitic Mass, but not before a curiously ethereal, or surreal sound-world drifted through the church – created by the chorus slowly circling their fingers on the edges of glasses – a remarkable, unusual special effect. A glistening final Amen, yet somehow troubled by uncertainty – brought Paul Mealor’s work to a conclusion, a fitting end to a memorable evening and to Paul’s stewardship of the Festival.
Other works in the concert included Britten’s Simple Symphony, a suite for strings in which the voice we know as Benjamin Britten is not hugely evident. In fact, in the third movement – entitled Sentimental Sarabande – the composer seems to be in the world of the gentle Downland Suite of John Ireland (his teacher at the Royal College of Music – although a teacher not best liked by the determined young Britten). However, there was one element of the concert which I did not quite understand… I had been looking forward to the performances of Warlock’s dances from antiquity, his Suite, Capriol, and Vaughan Williams’ Mass – which harks back to the church music of the first Elizabethans. But the performers decided on a peculiar course of action: to interpolate the Warlock (which is purely orchestral, and in places somewhat “profane” and beery) with movements from the sacred Mass. It felt like a concert of Debussy’s La Mer, which had – for no reason – been interspersed with movements from Ravel’s Mother Goose. We did hear fine renditions of both the Warlock and the Vaughan Williams on that July evening – but the mixing up of the two works ultimately detracted from their qualities and atmosphere. A pity, as the evening contained great things – crowned as it was by a notable premiere.
On Saturday 16th July, the Romney Marsh landscape but a memory, we were at the Royal Albert Hall, for the second night of the 122nd season of Henry Wood Promenade concerts, run and presented by the BBC since 1927. On stage that evening, the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano, in the great Pushkin-inspired opera by Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky – Boris Godunov – the story of a the 16th-century Tsar who ascends the throne by murdering the rightful heir, nine-year-old Dmitry. Starring the internationally-famous bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel, in the role of Boris, and with a cast that included soprano, Vlada Borovko (Xenia – Boris’s daughter); the bass, Ain Anger (Pimen – a mystic); and treble, Ben Knight who played the Tsar’s son, Fyodor – the Anglo-Russian ensemble performed to a capacity audience, bringing to life (despite it being a concert version of the opera, albeit with the principals in costume) a dark tale of past misdeeds breaking into the present.
The opera contains some unforgettable passages, not least the tumultuous acclamation of Boris as Tsar – complete with the clashing monotone of ancient Russian bells, and the supreme monarch and ruler appearing in solitary grandeur, yet haunted by the events that brought him to such heights. In Part Two, Scene One, set at the Chudov Monastery, a long dialogue between Pimen the elderly monk and the novice, Grigory – the latter, determined to denounce Boris – creates a febrile atmosphere of dreams and memory – the orchestral writing, like a voice in itself, a subtle and brilliant reflection and shadowing of the unfolding discussion of the two men. There is also the scene in part three, in which the Tsarevich, Fyodor, expresses his wonder at the vastness of the Russian empire – and the disturbing moment when Pimen the monk warns Boris that the spirit of the boy he murdered has returned to work miracles. A Holy Fool, too, plays an important role – revealing his knowledge that it was their mighty monarch who “slaughtered” the innocent Tsarevich.
Sir Antonio Pappano, surely one of the greatest operatic conductors of our age, brought his authority and mastery to the drama, and yet did so – despite being on the stage in front of his large-scale forces – unobtrusively. So gripping was the acting – with authentic costumes enabling us to imagine that we were in the opera-house rather than the concert hall – that I came away feeling that I had almost witnessed a chamber opera, or an opera written for television; in the sense that the spotlight was always upon the human action, the dialogue, the close-up interplay between characters. We simply imagined the sets – the state buildings of the coronation, the monastery, the Tsar’s court, Grigory’s appearance at an inn in Lithuania, and so forth. Such was the genius of this production.
Finally, The QR’s trek through Britain’s summer festivals took us to the west of the country; to St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, for the pioneering Welsh Proms season established 31 years ago by conductor, Owain Arwel Hughes CBE. We attended the final two nights of the St. David’s season, just missing another performance of Paul Mealor’s Shadows of War (part of a mid-week Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Prom). Friday night saw the massed male-voice choirs of Pendyrus and Dunvant take to the stage, alongside the exceptionally-fine Rhondda-based Cory Band – winner of countless brass awards, and an ensemble capable of producing a full symphonic sound. Interestingly, the “stand-alone” works performed by the Cory players were not from the brass-band repertoire: instead, they were all full symphonic pieces, but specially arranged for them. Launching into the spirit of the occasion came a version of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, which I doubt many symphony orchestras could have interpreted so well. Here was a brass sound that replicated an orchestral density, and yet which danced and sparkled – as if violins and lithe woodwind were on the platform. Mussorgsky and Wagner transcriptions were also delivered with tremendous elemental force (the Cory Band percussion and timpani, outstanding); and a rare piece of Vaughan Williams film music (from the wartime film, 49th Parallel) provided a moment of benediction, in a softly-spoken interpretation which truly found the heart of that composer’s music.
The choirs added a manly, parade-ground swagger to the Soldiers’ Chorus from Gounod’s Faust – but gave their very best in music that was theirs by heritage and ancestry: Troyte’s sunset poem – the prayer of the Rev. Eli Jenkins from Under Milk Wood; Joseph Parry’s Myfanwy; Llanfair – a setting of Charles Wesley by Robert Williams (1781-1821); the evergreen, Cwm Rhondda; and a hymn by the conductor’s father, Arwel Hughes (1909-1988), Tydi a Roddaist (Thou Gavest) – a noble, even austere piece which brought all the voices and brass together in a thrilling grand peroration.
On Saturday night, the revelry came to an end in a highly-enjoyable Last Night programme. A packed St. David’s Hall was clearly in the mood for some audience singing and fun, and this was provided at the end by the inclusion of Gareth Wood’s ingenious and colourfully-drawn Fantasy on Welsh Songs – a specially-created Cambrian equivalent of Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs. In this sequence of song, it was as if the audience had been drawn to the ancestral camp-fire, as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra accompanied them in old songs of the countryside, the mountains and the chapels. Owain Arwel Hughes was in his element here, and earned a great cheer, not just for his founding and 30-year belief in this Proms season – but for his Golden Wedding anniversary, something which added to the sense of family occasion.
The concert had begun with a sparkling version of Bernstein’s Overture, Candide – although the evening did provide a serious and poignant moment of remembrance, in the form of a specially-commissioned work by composer, Christopher Wood – Aberfan. A lament for those who perished in that ghastly and unforgivable industrial landslide. Wood’s piece nevertheless seemed to avoid any outright anger – providing instead a clear, calm uniting of everyone’s sadness and feeling of communal loss.
New music also figured in the second half. After the opening work – Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (with the refrain, Land of Hope and Glory, accompanied by a fluttering of Welsh dragons – with a couple of Union Jacks in reserve) – the audience was drawn into the world premiere of ‘Mr. Dahl’ by Cardiff-born composer, Bernard Kane. A student of the Royal College of Music and of Yale University, Bernard’s cleverly-constructed work – with its notes hammering out the name of the celebrated writer – was a true showpiece for the RPO, whose silvery strings and warm, strong tone added enormous lustre to this short, spectacular piece – ideal for any big occasion and communicating itself well to any audience.
May I be permitted one last (non-musical) observation? Over recent weeks, in fact – since the European referendum on the 23rd June – a “narrative” has crept into our media, and possibly into our minds, that our country has entered a period of nervous uncertainty; that things are not going well for us. But our attendance at the Romney Marsh Festival – with its premiere of Paul Mealor’s fine new Mass; the tremendous Royal Opera performance of Boris Godunov at the Proms; and the celebratory sense of nationhood – not to mention two more new orchestral pieces, one by a younger composer – at the Welsh Proms leads us to a different conclusion. Our country, especially in its music and art, is ringing with creativity, affirmation and life. Let us embrace this, and also take pride in the great achievements of our country today – something which the doom-laden media might do well to consider.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review