ENDNOTES, July 17, 2015

ORFORD AT LOW TIDE. PICTURE BY S. MILLSON.

ENDNOTES, July 17, 2015

In this edition:

BBC Symphony Orchestra at the 2015 Aldeburgh Festival * New Nielsen symphony cycle from Chandos

Had the homesick Benjamin Britten, during his early wartime sojourn in North America, not discovered a volume of George Crabbe’s poetry, there is a chance that one of the greatest 20th-century operas would never have been composed. Crabbe (1754-1832), a Suffolk clergyman, born by the grey North Sea at Aldeburgh, distilled in his writings the character and essence of the East of England coast. For the self-exiled pacifist but profoundly English Benjamin Britten, the lure of his locality and homeland proved to be too strong – the echo of Crabbe’s Aldeburgh summoning the composer back across the Atlantic ocean, to the embattled England of 1942.

In a Country Alphabet published by Shell in the mid-1960s, the Cornish writer Geoffrey Grigson devoted a section to George Crabbe, observing how much of his verse “…derives from the coastal scenery at Aldeburgh, slow tides flowing out between banks of mud, jellyfish stranded on the shore, sandbanks where one might be caught and drowned by the tide, black storms sweeping in…” and how the poet liked “glitter and darkness, comets, phosphorescence, moon-glades across the sea, and the curious recesses of the human mind…” Anyone who tries to understand Britten’s music or who struggles to describe the setting and meaning of the Aldeburgh Festival would do well to recall Grigson’s words.

This year, the Festival welcomed the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a concert given at the 800-seat Snape Maltings concert hall, their 24th June programme consisting largely of sea music: by Sibelius (his Oceanides, of 1914), and a symphonic suite by Britten’s teacher, Frank Bridge, whose sea-moods may have been the foundation for the physical and psychological drama found in the famous four Interludes from his pupil’s 1945 Crabbe-inspired opera, Peter Grimes – the story of a strange, troubled fisherman living at the very margins of the local borough.

The BBC SO also included a relatively new work (Everyone Sang) by the young British composer with an appropriate name for Aldeburgh, Helen Grime; and the lonely ‘Songs of a Wayfarer’ (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) by Gustav Mahler – a Central European figure who might seem somewhat distant from the heart of this Festival by the North Sea. However, Mahler was one of Britten’s favourite composers, and he championed the great Austrian symphonist at Aldeburgh, even bringing the LSO to nearby Orford Church in 1961 for a performance of the Fourth Symphony. (Fortunately, a recording of this occasion exists, on the BBC Music label, cat. no. BBCB 8004-2.)

Mezzo-Soprano Alice Coote,  conductor Martyn Brabbins

Mezzo-Soprano Alice Coote, conductor Martyn Brabbins, photo by Matt Jolly

There could not have been a finer day, though, for this year’s Snape outing by one of London’s distinguished orchestras – the BBC Symphony players, no doubt, enjoying breaks from their rehearsal by the riverbank and reeds of the slow, tidal Alde. In fact, where else in these islands, or in this world, could musicians or concertgoers enjoy an interval, after Sibelius and Mahler, with sea breezes from saltings and marshes, and the presence of wild birds – such as the marsh harrier – drifting by in the distance? This place is unique, and perfect for music.

And so to the performance itself: the BBC orchestra under the baton of the very persuasive and technically superb Martyn Brabbins, who replaced Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo at short notice, giving careful, slow-in-tempo readings of their well-chosen repertoire. Jean Sibelius’s The Oceanides, Op. 73, which began the concert unfolded gently in the Snape Maltings – the lonely woodwind calls, suggesting summer melancholy and trackless seas, echoing in this hall of polished wood and red brickwork. It was the American composer, teacher and music-advocate, Horatio Parker, who invited Sibelius to the United States in 1914, to conduct the premiere of his evocation of waves and the spirits of oceans. I wonder if, on his sea-crossing, Sibelius saw in the Atlantic swell, the Finnish sea-nymphs and other watery apparitions following in the wake? They certainly appeared in Martyn Brabbins’s interpretation of the work: the orchestra giving life to this ten-minute-long panorama of wave patterns, which gradually expanded in intensity – with cellos and violas suddenly catching a feeling of changing momentum, forming a huge, unsteady underswell, which led in turn to the intense, climactic high-tide of the work. From this moment, close to the end, The Oceanides subsides into the poetic longing of woodwind; as if the orchestra is lamenting the loss of that never-to-be-repeated scene of majestic waves and sky.

Helen Grime (b. 1981) set out in her work, Everyone Sang, to reconcile the ideas of public celebration and one’s private reservations about such jubilations, using as her starting point the poems and experiences of Siegfried Sassoon. Written in 2010 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Helen’s music communicated itself well to the hall – an arresting, vital, rhythmic beginning, giving way to a softly-spoken section punctuated by (to my ears) Gamelan-like effects, and eventually a conclusion somewhat reminiscent of the ‘Sunday morning’ from Britten’s Four Sea Interludes – cold, percussive touches, suggesting glints of light on waves, perhaps?

The young Britten said that he was “knocked sideways” when he first heard the Bridge, Symphonic Suite, The Sea, in 1924 – although the piece actually dates from 1910. I share Britten’s feeling for this work, having first heard it on Morning Concert on Radio 3 in 1981. It may have been the nearest thing I had come to in “modern” music at that time (although Bridge is by no means a modernist in the sense in which we normally understand 20th-century music); and I remember feeling the sound of the work to be unusual, as if normal colours had been slightly altered or intensified – the sea-scene belonging to a new dimension.

Exactly the same emotions occurred to me during Martyn Brabbins’s recent performance: his (again) slow tempo, and desire to show the details of each mood, building a very visual sense of sunlight, with a chance of a disturbance in weather far out to sea. The ‘Moonlight’ movement brought George Crabbe’s phosphorescence into the nocturnal fantasy – and the foundations of Britten’s own interlude could clearly be seen. ‘Storm’, the final movement, is one of Bridge’s greatest creations – the piece ending with a re-statement of the much earlier seascape motif, a summing up made more dazzling by a sequence of cymbal clashes slicing through the emphatic, ringing orchestral tumult. One of the best, if not the best version of The Sea I have ever heard.

Britten in 1942 – like Sibelius in 1914 – looked out from the deck of a ship to a seemingly limitless, but always heaving Atlantic ocean. He was on his way home, and three years later his opera Peter Grimes would make musical history. For Martyn Brabbins, the orchestral interludes seem to be more than extracts from an opera, but a short sea-symphony in their own right: ‘Dawn’ gaining, under his baton and from the BBC SO, an overwhelming sense of tension – of the doom that awaits sailors or fishermen; and of the slate-grey of an East Anglian early morning, with the cry of sea birds never far away. Church bells, a general bustling energy, and thrilling, rushing estuary waters were brilliantly captured in ‘Sunday Morning’ (sounding much better for not being played too quickly, a fault of some interpretations); and ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Storm’ – and the lonely dread of the slow-treading Passacaglia – were all clearly evoked by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

But for this performance, there was a twist in the tale: modern film-maker, Tal Rosner had composed a film accompaniment to the Britten – Rosner’s work being projected on a giant sail above the orchestra. The video sequence was initially composed for American performances of the Four Sea Interludes, and it was – at first – strange to see abstract shapes, and images of modern U.S. cities and harbours appearing above the stage of the Snape Maltings. The idea, though, began to work well, the director understanding the elemental drive and universal resonance in Britten’s music. Scenes of Los Angeles, and what looked like New York at night, gave a new slant to the ‘Moonlight’ interlude, but for the Passacaglia, the film-maker chose (like Britten in 1942) to come back to England. Tal commented in his programme note:

“Acting as a black mirror to the Interludes, the Passacaglia is my ‘B side’, a distant voice that is a newly-discovered core of the piece, where the grid has been broken and the harsh geometric shapes deteriorate around us. From the Barbican’s magnificent concrete reality to Blackfriars Bridge and along the Thames, the places I chose to deconstruct also embody personal experiences for me… In the process of dismembering familiar shapes, I find a freedom to create new life.”

Leaving the Snape Maltings that evening – daylight still lingering in the midsummer sky – I felt that Tal Rosner had achieved his aim; the BBC Symphony Orchestra, too, having given new life to well-known works.

**********

Elemental, inextinguishable, expansive: these words describe many parts of Danish composer, Carl Nielsen’s outlook and symphonic work. His symphonies even took the names – The Inextinguishable (the Fourth, written between 1914-16), No. 2 The Four Temperaments (1901-2) – confirming them with the true stamp of programmatic music. From Chandos Records comes a first-class cycle of the six symphonies, performed by conductor, John Storgards and the BBC Philharmonic at their state-of-the-art studio and hall at Media City, Salford.

If Sibelius’s Oceanides lapped the coast of East Anglia, Nielsen’s symphonies could also be the perfect choice for the Aldeburgh Festival: the outlook from Jutland and the dunes of Denmark offering a similar atmosphere. Beautifully recorded, the new Nielsen set is certainly definitive, both in the authoritative Storgards handling of this remarkable early 20th-century music, and in the astonishing attention to sound-detail. In the Third Symphony, for example, the 1910-11 Sinfonia Espansiva, two singers, a male and female (in this case, Gillian Keith, soprano, and Mark Stone, baritone) thread an enchanting vocalise over and through a summer haze of orchestral ripeness and warmth. Bathed in the red and orange glow of an evening landscape on a lonely northern shore, this sublime movement emerges on the Chandos recording, as if the listener were either there in the very front row, or wandering into the golden screen of a sky and shoreline – at somewhere approaching heaven.

An altogether more elusive and abstract world is conjured in the Symphony No. 6 of 1924-25, the first movement suggesting Shostakovich, or at least that the century is moving into new territories. Certainly, the side-drum passage in the Fifth Symphony (one of unusual ferocity) edges us closer to the war-torn world of Shostakovich’s Leningrad.

Austro-Hungarian soldier killed in the Great War

Austro-Hungarian soldier killed in the Great War

If Tal Rosner would like a subject for a new film, I recommend without hesitation the Chandos CDs of these six Nielsen symphonic masterpieces, which all cross and exist upon the very boundaries of late romanticism and the storms of the 20th century.

Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of QR

The Quarterly Review would like to thank Macbeth Media Relations and Aldeburgh Music for enabling us to visit this year’s Festival – and for their generous hospitality.

Performance details: BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins (with Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano in Mahler), live at the 2015 Aldeburgh Festival. Nielsen symphonies, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by John Storgards. Chandos – CHAN10859(3).

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