ENDNOTES – A gallimaufry of gems
STUART MILLSON listens to a rare Sullivan opera, John Adams’ Dr. Atomic Symphony, E. J. Moeran’s Violin Concerto, and Britten’s St. Nicolas, live at Aldeburgh
Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) helped to sow the seeds for the great English musical renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is most famous for his Savoy operas; for his Yeomen of the Guard and Pirates of Penzance, and all the wit and comedy which laces his work, chiefly due to the brilliant wordplay of librettist, W. S. Gilbert. Yet we tend to forget the serious Sullivan, the composer of the Irish Symphony, of incidental music to The Tempest and The Merchant of Venice, of the Overture, In Memoriam. Tuneful and Victorian, possibly a British continuation of Mendelssohn, but with a serious romantic voice – an individual voice – always reminding us of this prolific composer’s credentials as one of the figures who ushered in those giants, Parry and Elgar.
From Chandos Records, those innovators and creative record producers who refuse to stick with the tried-and-tested comes a hugely valuable new operatic release which celebrates the overlooked Sullivan, in the form of the opera, The Beauty Stone; a delightful fantasy set in an old Flemish town (Mirlemont), with its plot of a mediæval beauty contest, a stone with magical properties (hawked around town by the Devil) and leading characters, such as the Lord of Mirlemont (Toby Spence, tenor), Guntran of Beaugrant (David Stout, bass) – and the odd Seneschal and dwarf (Peppin) thrown in for good measure. The heroine, Laine (Elin Manahan Thomas, soprano), is a crippled servant girl who fears that she is too ugly for the townsfolk, but in the end, they don’t need trickery and weird stones to find the true beauty in Mirlemont. The Beauty Stone, however, was not a great success in its day (1898) and only enjoyed a run of fifty performances. The librettists who worked with Sullivan had names which were nearly as good as any Victorian stage character, Arthur Wing Pinero and Joseph William Comyns Carr, and although they were probably not in the same rank as Gilbert, produced a fairly decent romantic musical drama – which has been given a completely restored, clean-as-a-whistle revival, with sumptuous, clear, modern, serious symphonic sound (from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) and a choral contribution from the BBC Welsh Chorus which allows the work to be heard and appreciated alongside anything from the early Wagner, or Weber, world. The championing of the opera by the young conductor, Rory Macdonald and his soloists, and the careful repackaging of the entire work, with everyone clearly believing in it, is a rare triumph. How refreshing, too, to see a young conductor dedicating himself not to the fashionable, in-crowd of composers and works (the Second Viennese School, or the avant-garde) but to the unfashionable Sullivan. When they are given such immaculate performances as the one recorded here by Chandos, period pieces, works of their time – or even works that have had their day – can be enjoyed afresh. A stimulating, inspiring and extremely well-executed piece of Victoriana.
Now, Dr. Who-like, we leave Sullivan and his theatricals, and travel through time, to the America of the 1940s and ‘50s, and the secret state inhabited by Oppenheimer and those clinical, scientific harbingers of Doomsday in the Manhattan Project: the men and women who built the bomb. US contemporary composer, John Adams (b. 1947) has made a speciality of reflecting the life and times of his country, and in 2005, his opera, Dr. Atomic, exploded onto the set of San Francisco Opera – a company always keen to commission radical new work, with a modern political conscience. Adams is well known for his other political opera, Nixon in China, for the dynamic, restless, breathless orchestral powerhouse of a work, Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and a curious, melancholy piece, Christian Zeal and Activity – which contains the somehow sinister, spliced-together jumble of taped words and phrases from the speech of a revivalist, born-again preacher.
Two years after the premiere of Dr. Atomic, Adams made a 25-minute-long symphony out of the operatic score, and (Chandos again) have recorded it with conductor, Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Short Ride in a Fast Machine is also on the disc, and with its cover illustration of what looks like a radioactive figure glowing green – as if in an American comic-book of the time – this is one recording of contemporary music which storms the senses. If Short Ride gleams in the harsh light of an American city, or in the desert sunshine where they tested atomic bombs, the Dr. Atomic Symphony crackles like a geiger counter; conveying the claustrophobic atmosphere in which the Manhattan scientists worked, and the bunker of moral bleakness and darkness into which they are locked by their mission. The symphony runs continuously – the disturbing movement entitled Panic portraying an earth-shaking electrical storm – as if the earth and its atmosphere are trying to match man’s violence. The work concludes with Trinity (the name which Oppenheimer gave the atomic test site): the Trinity being a reference to John Donne’s “three-person’d God”, and cementing in the listener’s mind the sense that modern man has now defiled God with his abysmal weapon of destruction.
The recording, made in the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, is one of spellbinding intensity and sonic grandeur – the stunning musical language of John Adams requiring a large auditorium and, to catch every throb, every stroke of violence and the emptiness of the aftermath, the advanced technology of the Super Audio CD system used by Chandos is second to none.
But if such dazzling modern Americana really isn’t for you, Chandos (and Endnotes) will reassure you with the another rare discovery, but this time from the British romantic tradition, the Violin Concerto by E. J. Moeran, a composer who shared a cottage in North Kent with the mysterious Peter Warlock, creator of the Suite, Capriol and the song-cycle, The Curlew, a work of desolation and wilderness. Moeran had a profound gift for melody and tone-painting, and the Violin Concerto (1937-42) like so much of his output has been overshadowed by other trends and composers, not least by the looming image of his friend, the tragic Warlock. In the next Endnotes, we hope to bring you an interview with the soloist in the Moeran concerto, Tasmin Little, whose playing transforms this English backwater work into a piece that begins to edge alongside the great violin scores of this country from the last century. It is not a typical virtuoso work in, say, the style of Elgar, and it does not quite possess the sophisication, nuances and deeply memorable, almost painful, nostalgia of Walton. But it is a concerto with an authentic spirit of our native music and musical voice, with an involving, mellow-toned drama and reflection. Tasmin Little’s beautiful playing and magical tone serves Moeran well, as does the accompaniment from Manchester’s BBC Philharmonic under Sir Andrew Davis.
Finally, our musical time-travel takes us back to the first Aldeburgh Festival, the year being 1948. Suffolk-born Britten and his artistic collaborator and partner, the tenor Peter Pears, perhaps do not quite know it yet, but they have made musical history, by establishing a festival of music and the arts upon which our reputation as a nation of serious music-makers now rests. Of course, we have the Royal Opera House, the London orchestras, the Proms, but somehow, Aldeburgh has become to England what Bayreuth is to Germany: a place of homage, of musical advancement, a Royal court in itself, presided over – like some Saxon monarch of East Anglia – by the magus of modern British music and opera, Benjamin Britten.
On Saturday 23rd November, the Quarterly Review was in attendance at the Britten 100 celebrations; a mini-Aldeburgh Festival, organised by Aldeburgh Music and with the announcers and presenters of BBC Radio 3 – the latter doing exactly and precisely what they do best: broadcasting live classical music, and fine radio documentaries and features, such as Britten’s Suffolk churches, and ‘at home’ with Britten – and his friends, his circle, even his pets! Radio 3 was, when it began, the Third Programme: the entire weekend taking us back to that golden age – updated, perhaps, and chattier, but ultimately British broadcasting at its best. Tickets had been provided for us, to attend the Saturday night performance of St. Nicolas, a mixture of cantata, mystery-play, community hymn-singing, church-work, and mini-opera. Dramatically, and in the dark of Aldeburgh Parish Church, St. Nicolas appears to the audience, and in this performance was played by the great Alan Oke, who sang the title role in Peter Grimes in the summer at Snape Maltings. And like a time-traveller himself, Nicolas (a fourth century saint and miracle-worker) appears before the audience:
Across the tremendous bridge of sixteen-hundred years
I come to stand in worship with you
As I stood among my faithful congregation long ago.
All who knelt beside me then are gone.
Their name is dust, their tombs are grass and clay,
Yet still their shining seed of faith survives
St. Nicolas warns disbelieving mariners of shipwrecks, with Britten conjuring ‘sea interludes’ every bit as dramatic as in Peter Grimes, although for a smaller ensemble, yet possibly more concentrated because of that. He journeys to Palestine, and is enthroned as Bishop, with choral writing that could almost have come from the pen of Handel or Bach. Then the audience is invited to join in with the singing of “All people that on earth do dwell” – the ensemble, fortified by much percussion, adding to the riotous jubilation (reminding me of the finale to Britten’s thrilling orchestration of our National Anthem). There are miraculous scenes, including the famous section with pickled boys being brought back to life (“See! Three boys brought back to life, / Who, slaughtered by the butcher’s knife…”) – not to mention a chance for the audience to sing once again, in the final hymn: “God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform; / He plants his footsteps in the sea, / And rides upon the storm.” Lively conductor, Ben Parry (another good find from this younger generation) brought out full-throated sounds from the people in the pews, and from the young Jubilee Chorus, the (older) Aldeburgh Voices, and excellent chamber-playing from the Suffolk Ensemble.