Approaching Storm, Edward Mitchell Bannister, credit Wikipedia
Endnotes, April 2023
In this edition: review of the music of John Ireland; an interview with composer Nimrod Borenstein, both prepared by Stuart Millson
Throughout the flowering of the English musical renaissance (the period from about 1890 to the mid-1930s), composers have returned, again and again, to the idea of a lost English Eden: a time just out of reach, a landscape or village somewhere over yonder, where youth, mirth, renewal, beauty, love provide an endless solace. From the time just after the First World War when John Ireland wrote his song-cycle for tenor and piano, The Land of Lost Content, to the Cold War period when Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes, ‘A Time There Was’ appeared; the sense of a composer dreaming of ‘blue-remembered hills’ remained constant.
Attracted to the poetry of A.E. Housman, John Ireland started work on the poet’s 1896 collection, A Shropshire Lad, in 1920, conceiving a song-cycle that would span the many moods of Housman’s rural idyll. But was it a rural paradise, or instead, a place where sorrow and loss could be sensed in every woodland shadow? The Lent Lily, the first song of The Land of Lost Content, opens with a gentle, dreamy piano introduction embracing springtime and the yellow flowers of the woodland ‘that have no time to stay’; that die ‘on Easter Day’. Here, everything suddenly seems transient; the life of man (even that of the son of God) is but a moment in time. Interpreted by tenor Sir Peter Pears, accompanied by Benjamin Britten on the piano, their vintage recording on the Decca label of the mid-1960s has never been bettered: the voice of Pears – remote, even ghostly – pitched as if singing from the edge of morning mist, intoning a pagan ritual, yet perfectly entwined with the Schubert-like classicism and purity of Britten’s piano-playing.
Ireland’s settings have further surprises for the listener: in the penultimate song, for example, there is a ‘strange meeting’ (as poignant as anything in Wilfred Owen’s poem as featured in Britten’s War Requiem) when ‘the street sounds to the soldiers’ tread’ – and, alarmingly, from out of the redcoats marching by, a single glance is thrown from the ranks to a young onlooker. Is this his time to die? Or is this the soldier telling the young man what awaits us all? The onlooker honours the fighting men as they go by, moving as one: ‘… dead or living, drunk or dry, Soldier I wish you well.’ Here, Pears and Britten adjust to the change in mood, to the excitement in the village street as the regimental boots pound the stones in mechanical rhythm. A moment in English music which matches similar snatches of provincial military pomp heard in Mahler’s vaguely unsettling lieder scenes from Bohemian villages and Germanic folk-poetry. Each part of Ireland’s score matches Housman’s sentiments perfectly, leaving the listener almost feeling that composer and poet had actually sat down together with Britten and Pears and planned the whole work together.
Another of Ireland’s musical achievements, this time from just before the First World War, was the Channel Island-inspired symphonic poem, The Forgotten Rite. A perfectly balanced work in its seven-minute timescale, the piece (like the opening of The Lent Lily) envelopes the listener in a rural place, where Druids or long-vanished aboriginal British races once practised their religion. Time stands still in the hushed orchestral opening, a phrase gradually developing which seems to speak of the composer’s regret at the decay over time – and loss – of this strange world. The orchestral sound builds, as if in a salute to those ancient ways and gods of the past such as Pan: Ireland, the mystic and magician, bringing them back to life before our eyes..
Chandos recorded the work in the 1990s, with the late Richard Hickox and the London Symphony Orchestra – the label returning to the piece just recently with the Sinfonia of London and John Wilson, who give a lighter-in-tone orchestral timbre to the proceedings. The Hickox recording, though splendid, suffered slightly from an occasionally ‘congested’ sound quality at higher registers. The Forgotten Rite from John Wilson and the Sinfonia has more of the translucent quality needed for, what is, after all, an orchestral dreamscape. Also on the new John Ireland cd is an equally well-paced account of the 1946 ancient-Rome-inspired Overture, Satyricon; the English classicism and nostalgia of A Downland Suite; and a noble, but surprisingly gentle reading of the Blitz-era Epic March – which Ireland prefaced with the following: ‘EPIC (adj.). Concerning some heroic action or series of actions and events of deep and lasting significance on the history of a nation or a race.’
The composer Nimrod Borenstein (born 1969) is emerging as a leading new voice in contemporary music (see Endnotes, March edition), challenging the extreme modernism set down as a standard in the 1960s, and seeking to replace that increasingly stale mode of composition with music that honours and builds upon, but does not imitate, the foundation composers of classical music.
QR met Nimrod recently to discuss his work and the state of music generally; we discovered a composer who talks with a passion that matches his music. “I have been composing since the age of six”, he confides. He believes in the power and purity of classical music and tries, in his music lessons, to draw students away from the “insubstantial” world of pop music. “When I was 40 years old [he remarks] my outlook as a composer altered and I conceived a vision of writing concertos, that built upon the great masters, Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven.” In fact, prior to our meeting, Nimrod had been working on his score for a new Mandolin Concerto for the mandolinist Alon Sariel, to be premiered in Germany in December 2023. There is also a new Viola Concerto in the offing, commissioned by Simone Gramaglia, violist of the Quartetto di Cremona, which has recorded Nimrod’s own Italianate string piece, Cieli d’Italia, Op. 88. “How much of a successor work is this to the Walton concerto?”, we asked. “Actually,” replied Nimrod, “I prefer Walton’s violin concerto!”
Nimrod’s music is imbued with a light and colour – and inventiveness – that matches the composer’s irrepressible energy; his intensely persuasive and loquacious manner mirroring the effortless flow of Mozart and Mendelssohn that he adores; a warmth and spontaneity that he wishes to resurrect in our concert halls. But how does he go about composing? We discovered an artist of immense self-discipline, Borenstein explaining how he would keep a record of the hours spent on a composition; the times from the early morning, when work begins on a piece (often from a difficult starting point of just a few ‘unpromising or promising’ notes) to the completion of a score, in time for the premiere.
Nimrod also explained some technical points about notation, bars, the structuring of his music etc; fascinating material for the musical anorak. But suffice it to say that for the general reader, he eschews the ruthless, pure, “academic” formalism of Boulez or the post-war avant-garde, as represented by the Darmstadt school, which tended toward musical “ideology”. And his inspiration comes not just from music but from film, too: Powell and Pressburger’s 1951 fusion of opera and celluloid The Tales of Hoffmann, and from Fritz Lang’s Wagnerian-style odyssey from the 1920s, Die Nibelungen. “The Barcarolle from my piano cycle, Shirim, (poems) Op. 94, is a tribute to the overlooked genius of Offenbach. In Lang’s Nibelungen you don’t need to know Wagner’s story: just hear the great music. I find Lang’s Nibelungen magical and one day would like to explore with a like-minded cineast the combination of music and images.” QR looks forward with anticipation to the performance of Nimrod Borenstein’s latest pieces.
CD details: Ireland, The Land of Lost Content: this work may be found on several Decca anthologies, and also on a multi-CD set of performances by Britten and Pears, catalogue number: 478 5672. Ireland, orchestral works, Sinfonia of London/John Wilson, Chandos, CHAN 5293.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review