ENDNOTES – Northern lights, western winds
A Swedish symphonist * A Mass of the Western Wynde * Mendelssohn in Reformation spirit * Waltzes with William Alwyn
If companies such as Chandos Records had never existed, I doubt if very many people in Britain would have heard of Kurt Atterberg, the Swedish symphonist whose productive years spanned the pre-Great War to end-of-the-Second World War period. New from the Chandos presses is a magnificently recorded Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, clearly deeply-committed to the performance of Atterberg’s Op. 6 Second Symphony of 1911-13, and the Symphony No. 8, Op. 48 of 1944. By 1944, Europe was certainly in, or on the brink of, what we might call “the modern, democratic age” – with dictators now doomed, and welfare states on the march; and yet Atterberg’s Eighth seems to be more the work of the late-romantic era, its third movement, scored molto vivo, and its Con moto finale emerging from happier, more innocent times.
Untroubled, noble thoughts come to mind in this light-footed, yet glowing and occasionally heavy-with-emotion music: music which comes from the sacred mountain sources of pure Sibelian water. (Sibelius, it must be said, provides a genetic structure to most 20th-century Scandinavian works.) Or perhaps from the drive and drama of Nielsen’s orchestral landscape: the purity, freshness, and independent spirit of Europe’s untamed northern reaches, yet framed in the mainstream, central Western symphonic tradition. It is a major omission that Atterberg’s music is never played in Britain. The truth is that we have descended into safe, easy habits with our music in this country: we seem either glued to Beethoven-Brahms-Tchaikovsky on Classic FM, or obsessed with Stravinsky-Bartok-Schoenberg on Radio 3. Striking out, adventure and radicalism, or what passes for radicalism, is defined by Stockhausen, a discordant remnant of the 1960s, which seems tired and just about as radical as inner London’s concrete high-rise flats. True radicalism, on the other hand, would be a day at the Royal Festival Hall or the Barbican, devoted to Atterberg; to striding out on the Swedish coast or lakesides, or staring into a night sky, hoping for a glimpse of strange, erratic streams and storms of light. I have played the Molto vivo movement of the Eighth some three or four times, and find myself drawn to this life-giving symphonic elixir, with folkish rhythms that come close to the sound-world of Vaughan Williams. I can only hope that conductor and Atterberg champion, Neeme Jarvi, will bring his Swedish orchestra to Britain and show us a completely new repertoire.
English choral music is well-served on disc these days, but again, most listeners tend to know only Byrd, Tallis and Gibbons. John Sheppard (1515-58) is less familiar. Chandos now brings us the sacred choral works of this obscure composer, recorded at St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, with the choir of the chapel conducted by Andrew Nethsingha. Even the scholarly author of the booklet notes is stumped to some extent by the dearth of information from Sheppard’s life and times. “Who was John Sheppard?” asks writer Martin Ennis. “When he was born, and where he grew up is lost to history…” he continues, but his role as Master of Music at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1543 is a fact, as is his place as one of the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal of 1552.
The new CD is best listened to with eyes closed; and you will imagine yourself in one of our great churches, with God, or Tudor Kings (or suddenly Henry Vlll’s daughter, Mary) looking down upon you. And as you drift away, your disc will play a sequence, beginning with Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo, then Sheppard’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer, Christ rising again, Spiritus Sanctus procedens (the Apostles feel the power of the Holy Spirit, causing them to speak with all manner of tongues), and the “Western Wynde” Mass – Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei – but yet, as we discover, one of the rare church works based upon a non-religious song, “Westron wynde when wyll thow blow”. Glorious sounds, English voices in sublime harmony, echoing out of history…
Somm Records is another CD label which liberates us from the ordinary and predictable. A Somm disc is an exciting thing to receive, especially when you uncover the treasure trove of William Alwyn’s Fantasy Waltzes, played by the brilliant, stylish, pianist and proponent of new, old music, Mark Bebbington. Quite simply, Mark Bebbington is a first-class, world-class performer, and educator. I was privileged to be in the front row at the opening night of the 2012 English Music Festival, at which Mark gave the world premiere performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia for Piano and Orchestra, delivering not only a lucid, expansive, almost ‘easy’ rendition of this 20-minute concerto, but talking to the audience about the music and its meaning. (The soloist must forgive my use of the word ‘easy’: I really meant effortless.) So when I saw that Alwyn’s mid-1950s sequence of waltzes had the Bebbington stamp, I knew that this would be a recording to savour. And it is a record that currently occupies a pride of place in the collection, with the piano’s depths, softnesses and subtleties recorded in great intimacy, yet all within the large acoustic of Birmingham Town Hall.
I have found of late that some piano-only CDs have made me reach for the pause button on my CD player, as a dry acoustic and a dry, constant hammering of the instrument can be a little draining. Somm’s Alwyn collection has the very opposite effect, the piano becoming almost like a voice, telling a story; with the waltz wandering away from its strict structures, and creating little atmospheres and dreams of its own; lingering with the odd memory or sense of place, perhaps, but never depriving the listener of melody. Alwyn lived for much of his life in Suffolk, near Blythburgh and the sea-village of Walberswick, and wrote four symphonies, and much commercial, but high-quality film music.
He wrote a suite of Elizabethan Dances, with two or three movements existing as little tone-poems in their own right, conveying a sense of grey skies on a cool English summer’s day, or even the sound of an old folk-dance half-remembered or half-heard from far away. There is depth and a spirit of tender thought, reflection and melancholy in Alwyn’s music: and it is his simplicity (for he is never over-intellectual or deliberately atonal) which gives him that depth. The spirit at work in the Elizabethan Dances also lurks in the Fantasy Waltzes – best illustrated by the Moderato, Grazioso and Lento sections (parts three, four and five).
The CD also contains music by Alwyn’s wife, who wrote under the name Doreen Carwithen (Endnotes will feature her works later this year), and other Alwyn gems, such as The Weather Vane and Bicycle Ride. All pleasant, surprising English music, and music we just don’t hear very often, or even at all.
I mentioned that the Alwyn was recorded in Birmingham Town Hall. So, too, was my last Chandos disc for this Endnotes, Edward Gardner and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. We all know the sunny world of No. 4 – The Italian – but less well known is the Reformation, with its holy light near the beginning: the deeply-spiritual tune known as the ‟Dresden Amen”, which Wagner used in his last great opera, Parsifal. The CBSO does Mendelssohn great justice, and the recording seems to capture with exceptional clarity the very contact of the violinists’ bows and strings, a lovely fresh, zestful sound – as if you are sitting there among the front-desk players.
The British classical recording industry must surely be one of this country’s most accomplished technical enterprises, yet I wonder how many of our politicians and pundits ever think of it in their pontifications. And emerging as an important player is EM Records, the recording arm of the English Music Festival, the main event of which is underway at Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire from the 23rd May, with – astonishingly – two world premieres by Vaughan Williams and one by Sir Arnold Bax. In the next Endnotes, we bring you a review of their latest CD: sonatas by Bantock, Cyril Scott and Roger Sacheverell Coke. New music, some new names, and always new horizons from the Quarterly Review.
STUART MILLSON is Classical Music Editor