ENDNOTES, 6th December 2017

Olga Spessiva, in Swan Lake

ENDNOTES, 6th December 2017

In this edition: Ronald Corp conducts Parry, Elgar & Vaughan Williams; A Wind in the Willows fantasy, narrated by Simon Callow; Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker from Bergen, reviewed by STUART MILLSON. Echoes of Mozart, reviewed by LESLIE JONES

The Quarterly Review caught up with conductor and composer Ronald Corp just a few days before his end-of-year concert with the London Chorus and New London Orchestra. Busily rehearsing at London’s Cadogan Hall – especially the large-scale and seldom-performed Vaughan Williams’ Hodie (1953-54) – we asked the maestro about his latest championing of rare English music: “I am delighted to be performing this late work by Vaughan Williams, his 16-part Christmas choral-orchestral piece, because it’s very much a symposium – his own symposium – of his lifetime of composition. Hodie (‘Today’ – [Christ is born]) contains many ideas and themes – some of them pastoral, some reminiscent of The Pilgrim’s Progress, some from the symphonies. There are wonderful sections for the three soloists, a tenor, soprano, baritone [Mark Wilde, Julien Van Mellaerts and Augusta Hebbert] with the choir – and children’s choir – evoking the mysteries of the Christmas story.”

Perhaps the most striking part of Hodie was the echo it contained of the Seventh Symphony, the Sinfonia Antartica. The use of the celeste, and the writing for trumpet – touches which created a sense of distance and destiny in the Seventh – conjured up a world of winter and loneliness. Except that here we were not at the polar ice cap, but on a Cotswold hill in deep midwinter, or even inside a candlelit church, with shadows playing against the cold, stone, mediaeval walls and frosty windows. Each section of the work – variously choruses, interludes, narrations (almost a mummers’ play in cantata form) – contained a particular seasonal setting: Thomas Hardy’s “Christmas Eve and twelve of the clock…” from The Oxen; the Books of Matthew and Luke; the Vespers for Christmas Day; and the Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity by Milton:

“But peaceful was the night/Wherein the Prince of light
His reign of peace upon the earth began: The winds, with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kissed.”

The concert began with Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens – another Milton setting, this time At a Solemn Music – and in this, as in the rest of the concert, the New London Orchestra and London Chorus produced a warm, noble sound (bringing Sir Adrian Boult’s vintage EMI recordings to mind). However, it was in the Vaughan Williams that the ensemble was performing at full power – Hodie achieving a strong, bold unanimity and a sense of real commitment to this rare score.

Another revelation was the performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, played by a rising star of classical music, Abel Selaocoe. Originally from South Africa’s townships, Mr. Selaocoe – through determination, ambition and his God-given talent for music – rose through various conservatories, to become not just a proficient player of the cello, but a virtuoso: a man on the threshold of what could be international acclaim. The soloist interpreted one of the most instantly recognisable English works in the repertoire with a feeling and emotion which made you almost believe that he was a native of Elgar’s Malvern Hills, Herefordshire and the land of the Severn. One of the great tests of the concerto is the devilishly-difficult second movement, an Allegro Molto – a rapid, darting, whirligig passage which requires nimble manoeuvres, quick wits, utter concentration and panache. Abel Selaocoe passed the test with flying colours, and brought the Concerto to a majestic conclusion – summarising all of Elgar’s autumnal colour and deep-seated nostalgia.

For CD buyers, Christmas stockings will undoubtedly be filled with recordings of such pieces as Tchaikovsky’s ballet in two acts, The Nutcracker. Also with whimsical novelties, such as a newish issue of music by contemporary composer and cellist, Richard Birchall, based upon The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland, narrated by the renowned actor, Simon Callow, and performed by a cello octet, Cellophony. Birchall’s music for those two classic stories has a definitely romantic tone, especially in the Dulce Domum sequence from The Wind in the Willows, in which the home-loving Mole – out on an adventure with his friends – chances upon his old burrow. The cellos, sounding wistful – but with a resonant, avuncular tone (ideal for this tale) – hint at the tune, Keep the Home Fires Burning, with a touch of Elgar’s Nimrod drifting across the landscape. For the final movement, The Battle of Toad Hall, Birchall strikes a spiky tone and, as we enter The Wild Wood, a Waltz of the Weasels suggests dastardly goings-on. An unusual CD presentation, and one which many younger listeners are bound to enjoy – as much as middle-aged nostalgists!

The season of goodwill is, perhaps, nowhere better served in the concert hall or ballet theatre than by Tchaikovsky’s Op. 71, The Nutcracker, which comes in a handsome new Chandos box set, together with the Russian master’s other great choreagraphic fairytales and dramas, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Performed with tremendous authority, vitality, ear for detail – and, as ever, the pinpoint-accuracy of the sumptuous Chandos sound – the new recording by Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic conducted by Estonia’s Neeme Jarvi is a CD which no serious collector will want to be without.

Having said that, I was disappointed by an admittedly, small section: the miniature overture which opens the ballet. This delightful three minutes of almost cut-glass refinement and melody is one of the composer’s most charming creations, but here in the Bergen recording it feels rushed – as if the curtain is being thrust back across the stage, rather than gently unfurled. But no such reservations on the rest of the score: the proud, Handel-like tones which end the scene of the Grandfather’s dance; the feast of delight and diversion (the Divertissement of Act ll) in which Le Chocolat from Iberia appears; a beguiling, sultry, Arabian dance – with soft taps on a tambourine evoking Le Café; and a final explosion of primal Russian energy in the molto vivace Trepak – as if an entire folk festivity has tumbled wildly across the stage. A thrilling and satisfying Tchaikovsky edition, and hopefully we will hear more of the Bergen orchestra next year – perhaps in Tchaikovsky’s symphonies?

Tchaikovsky ballets, Chandos Records, CHSA 5204(5)
Richard Birchall, The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Cellophony Records, CR101

Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of QR

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Echoes of Mozart, Kings Place, Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon, with Katia & Marielle Labèque, Friday 24th November 2017, reviewed by LESLIE JONES

Pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque are not in fact twins but you would be forgiven for thinking so. Not only do they look alike but they evidently have an instinctive musical understanding. Their programme opened with Ravel’s affecting Mother Goose Suite. Rhythmical and forceful moments were interspersed here with dreamy, ethereal passages, reminiscent of Scriabin. And there were echoes of Modest Mussorksky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, as transcribed for piano. The sisters’ musical empathy was particularly apparent in the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 10 in E flat for two pianos, in which their interaction with the strings was also striking. Both pieces were warmly received. Kings Place is an intimate, purpose built venue with a remarkable acoustic, an integral part of the renaissance of this once run down area. There was grey hair in abundance on this occasion but also, thankfully, a contingent of children. After all, even in music, demography is destiny.

Following the interval, the Aurora Orchestra, ably enough conducted by Nicholas Collon, performed Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for Strings and Schubert’s Symphony No 5 in B flat. But now we sorely missed the sisters. “Would they had stay’d!”, for “what seemed corporal [had] melted, as breath into the wind”.

The Labèque Sisters, photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Leslie Jones is Editor of QR 

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2 Responses to ENDNOTES, 6th December 2017

  1. Stuart Millson says:

    Enjoyed BBC Radio 3’s Record Review this morning, which endorsed Vernon Handley’s performance of The Dream of Gerontius. I was surprised, though, that the reviewer, Mark Lowther, did not refer to the magnificent singing of Peter Pears (in the Britten version of Gerontius, on Decca) at the very outset of his part in the work – (what Elgar called his “passionate pilgrimage of the soul”). Where Pears sings, in that other-wordly, fragile way, about “Jesu, Maria” and being “near to death” is surely one of the highpoints of the work, anywhere on record – and it reminds me of the ghostly impression he leaves of the character of Peter Grimes at the beginning of that opera, in the courtroom scene. I also felt that Mark Lowther could have spoken up for the ethereal string playing of the New Philharmonia in the Boult EMI recording from the mid-70s: in the prelude to Gerontius, the orchestra brings out a real and extraordinary sense of mystical elation – and takes the climax of that particular section to unparalleled heights. No other orchestra in any other recording hits that note.

    Record Review remains one of my favourite programmes on Radio 3, and I am sorry to say that I now tend to switch off when Tom Service’s ‘Music Matters’ comes on. The programme should be about – well, music! – but I feel it often isn’t – or at least doesn’t reflect the sort of attitude to music which I, and I am sure many other listeners cherish. I can recall the rich (somewhat priestly!) tones and analysis of Michael Oliver’s Music Weekly in the early 1980s on Radio 3’s Sunday morning, but increasingly, Music Matters seems like a forum for a purely Guardianish position on the arts and society – Tom Service’s rather hectoring delivery sounding more like a party-political broadcast than an arts programme. One edition featured a discussion on the arts, post-Brexit, and not one single Brexiteer was invited to join in – the presenter even saying that the “majority of people in the arts are for Remain”. Even if that were true, at least you could bring in someone who didn’t play the tune of Brussels. And last week’s programme sounded like a symposium for commissar-like HR officers – with the arts and orchestras presented as if they were terrible places in which to work. There may be instances where that is not so, and that is to be regretted and quickly rectified, but I know several players and singers in performing bodies – men and women – who all enjoy their working environments and love their jobs and the esprit de corps of the ensembles in which they play and sing. Music Matters needs to be joyful about the arts (especially in this age of grunge and mediocrity): instead, its mission seems to be one of acute criticism, even deconstruction. Mr. Service IS a very good broadcaster and a man of knowledge (as his breathless introductions to Wagner’s Ring and John Adams’s Harmonielehre at the Proms testify) – yet his programme leaves me with feeling as though a cloud has just passed by. Radio 3 listeners want real life, as it is – yes! – but they also seek inspiration, magic and uplift, and a variety of views, not just the force-feeding of a standard, pre-programmed, mechanically-recited ‘Guardianista’ agenda.

    Come on Tom: let’s have a programme celebrating the men in white tie and tails, and women in evening gowns, who gather to play Elgar, Mahler, Bruckner, Wagner and Vaughan Williams, and maintain Britain as a civilised, elite part of the world!

  2. Stuart Millson says:

    Re my last comment, I may have made a small error! “Passionate pilgrimage of the soul” – this comment related, I believe, to Symphony No. 2. Apologies to all Elgarians.

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