ENDNOTES, March 2018

Vlatava, in Prague

ENDNOTES, March 2018

In this edition: Smetana from Prague; the music of Marcus Paus; Rubbra conducts Rubbra

As a tribute to the great Czech maestro Jiří Bělohlávek, who died last year (after succumbing to cancer at 71), Decca has issued his 2014 recording of Smetana’s
Vlast – “My country”. British audiences took Mr. Bělohlávek to their hearts: he became the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and in addition to his advocacy of music of his native Bohemia, took up with relish the cause of British music. He conducted Elgar’s (rarely-heard) The Spirit of England at the Last Night of the Proms, expressed his great approval of this institution – joining in with full enthusiasm, and even proudly wearing the CBE which he was awarded in recognition of his huge contribution to the arts in Britain. Other Proms triumphs included a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony which seemed to achieve in full, not just the gargantuan, granite relentlessness of the second movement, but the transcendental triumph of what Bruckner left as the final completed movement – the composer having dedicated the work “to God”.

Bělohlávek’s valedictory Smetana recording was produced four years ago at the hall in Prague which bears the composer’s name. For a Czech, Má Vlast is a national testament in music: a celebration of Bohemian culture, landscape and lore. The first movement, Vyšehrad, establishes an atmosphere of courtly splendour and ages long past. Here, the Czech Philharmonic – with a rich bloom to their playing – immerse themselves in the music of their homeland; although that precise, close-to-the-microphone tone – that slight rasp to the brass playing, so evident in vintage recordings on the Czech Supraphon label – has not been lost in Decca’s admirable production.

The famous Vltava section – the river which trickles from a mountain brook and then broadens on noble meadowland curves – is given an authenticity, detail and unforced passion which makes this, for me, the very best recording available. The final movements –and Tábor and Blaník – take us to the creation myths of the Czech nation: the warriors of the 15th-century Hussite culture and the mountain in which the ancient defenders of the homeland rest, awaiting their country’s call. Emphatic, beautifully-played, and sacrificing not one note of the near Wagnerian drama, this is a performance which must stand as one of Decca’s landmark productions.

Contemporary music comes to us, this month, in the form of Marcus Paus, a young Norwegian composer, unafraid of musical tonality and the romantic – even mystical spirit. Readers of Endnotes may recall last month’s portrait of modern British composer, Peter Seabourne on the pioneering Sheva record label. Peter Seabourne is one of the motivating forces for Paus’s music, and acts as a Producer on the new edition (catalogue number, SH174). The Arctic Chamber Orchestra performs Love’s Last Rites, with Henning Kraggerud, violin – which begins in the same spirit almost as Sibelius’s Valse Triste – a contrast to the CD’s opening Concertino for Flute and Orchestra – A Portrait of Zhou- which takes the listener (courtesy this time of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra) into:

“… a world halfway between myth and reality [of a boy, Zhou, from China’s Wudang province]… destined to become a Kung Fu master…”

Written for a folk play, combining the talents of a Norwegian dance company and four Chinese monks, Portrait of Zhou has a healing quality: a slow, meditative mime in music, with strong brush-strokes of oriental colour that serve the piece well in the spectacle of stage or folk-theatre. The piece suggests film music, although pure enjoyment comes from simply sitting back and appreciating the piece, taking in its traditional Chinese elements – albeit through a Western prism.

Finally, listeners searching for a harder, more visceral sound-world will enjoy the Oslo Camerata’s performance of Shostakovich in Memoriam – a darker (though somewhat “synthesised”) feel to the collection. Long, empty vistas begin the memorial to Russia’s enigmatic 20th-century musical survivor – the composer who avoided the wrath of Stalin, who remained loyal to his country, yet concealed sardonic messages against the Soviet regime in his symphonies. Paus brings to mind the intensity of a Shostakovich Cello Concerto, and – again – to listeners fond of cinematic allusions, they may see in the music the sorrow of the Soviet years; a brooding vision of the composer looking from a window at the Ministry of Culture on a Moscow street – armed officers in doorways, civilians (eyes on the snowy pavement) walking nervously to their homes or workplaces.

Photo taken during Stalin’s deportation of the Chechens and Ingush

The 20th-century English composer Edmund Rubbra was another figure who eschewed ultra-modernism in favour of “lineal”, tonal progression. This, to summarise the composer’s own words (which are featured in a recorded talk on this new disc from Somm Records) is a symphony gathering its own speed, occupying its own ground and world. On their new CD, Somm present historic recordings of the Second and Fourth Symphonies – the latter from a live performance conducted by the composer (in his military uniform) at a wartime Proms concert. The noble, slow introduction of the first movement sets an atmosphere of stoical, clear-headed self-assurance, which one imagines would have instantly communicated itself to the 1940s’ audience. Building to a great span of sound at its finale – finding ever-greater reserves of energy, and suggesting that the work itself has a living spirit which refuses to come to an end – the composer, nevertheless brings his baton down on a triumphant 35 minutes.

The Symphony No. 2 – a post-war recording – has a more nervous energy to it, with some sustained climaxes, and a final movement exhibiting a curious unwieldy energy, which may remind some of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 8 (although the Rubbra pre-dates the work). Played with great authority by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, Somm deserves credit for presenting in excellent sound two recordings from a lifetime ago. In fact, it is difficult to believe that the Fourth Symphony was a wartime concert – so clear and detailed is the reproduction. The CD itself has a fine photograph on its cover of Sir Adrian discussing the score with the composer – although Somm has made a slight production error: the third movement “cue” does not appear on the CD player’s digital display – so the second movement runs into the third without “showing” the demarcation on the CD. A small point, and one that does not detract from this tribute to a much-overlooked English symphonist.

Edmund Rubbra, Symphonies 2 and 4, SOMM0179

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of QR

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