ENDNOTES, November 2016

Stretcher Bearers, Battle of Thiepval Ridge, September 1916

Stretcher Bearers, Battle of Thiepval Ridge, September 1916

ENDNOTES, November 2016

In this edition: music of Remembrance by Ronald Corp * ‘Dice Mass’ from the Tallis Scholars * Ginastera from Chandos * Has Radio 3 gone Gaga?

The composer and conductor Ronald Corp has commemorated the season of Remembrance with a new recording on the Stone Records label. Determined that contemporary music should reflect a rapport between composer, performer and audience, Corp’s war music eschews the large-scale gestures of Britten’s War Requiem or Bliss’s Morning Heroes (a non-pacifist’s alternative to the more famous work by Britten) and, instead, creates a more intimate atmosphere, with a chamber ensemble drawn from members of the New London Orchestra. In Fields of the Fallen, we find settings of Julian Grenfell, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg – and impressions of war from the other side of the trenches: Ernst Stadler and Gerrit Engelke. The mood created by the smaller array of instrumentalists, accompanied by Stephen Loges (bass-baritone) takes the listener more into the world of Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge, or Warlock’s desolate sedge and marsh, The Curlew: music of lamentation, reflection, the shadow of death – yet with the feeling, understanding and tenderness which Ronald Corp brings to all of his compositions. Fields of the Fallen is followed by Dawn on the Somme, with a setting of the very poet – Robert Nichols – which concludes Sir Arthus Bliss’s oratorio.

Ronald Corp has written and conducted many patriotic works, and his war pieces are no exception. Yet their power and sense of English chivalry, or of a lost rural idyll or civilisation, is enhanced by the composer’s desire to see war from another perspective: the misery of the trenches as much a part of the German soldier’s experience and heritage, as that of the British “Tommy”. Ernst Junger’s account of World War One, Storm of Steel, shows us that alongside every daring British officer, “Shropshire lad” or Lancashire “pal”, there were Hanoverians and Prussians who witnessed the “carpets” of rats which covered the battlefield each nightfall, or the hideously injured at the field hospital – waiting either for discharge, or death itself.

The quality of the recording is very high – the instrumentalists’ passionate playing captured with great clarity and space, and every word uttered by the singer, hitting its mark…

“Rain, midnight rain, nothing but wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude and me
Remembering again that I shall die.”
(The words of Edward Thomas.)

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The era of the Renaissance now beckons and back we go in time to Northern Italy of the 15th century, as Gimell Records takes us to the age of the French-born composer, Josquin – or more accurately, Josquin des Prez, or Desprez as he often appears. With nearly 20 masses, and many other church works, Josquin’s music has a transcendent, effortless strength and beauty, which the Tallis Scholars and Peter Phillips realise in profound scholarship, authenticity and detail. Like a team of craftsmen, revealing the glories of lost or dusty Renaissance works of art, Phillips and his singers scale the heights of the intriguing Dice Mass (Missa Di dada – named after the Roman soldiers who span dice on Christ’s robes – but with the “mathematics” of the dice also informing the very pattern and interplay of the tenor parts in the mass) – and a Missa Une mousse de Biscaye. Curiously, this work’s roots seem very much in the world of the ordinary peasant, rather than that of the church; with the style of music from the Basque country (Biscaye) and the word “mousse” – said to mean girl, or lass. An expansive, typically soaring atmosphere throughout, Gimmell’s recording is flawless – and is one that you will want to play time and again; each hypnotic pulse of voices showing us how “early music” contains not just the seed of the music that was to come over the next five centuries, but possibly, the very purest expression of religion and art in mankind’s history.

Chandos Records provides a benchmark for the recording of off-the-beaten track orchestral repertoire from the late-19th and early-20th centuries. One of the company’s most ambitious projects of late has been a retrospective of the music of Alberto Ginastera, the Argentinian composer and modern nationalist who lived between 1916 and 1983. For Ginastera, the flavour and colour of South America formed a backbone to his music, but many other international influences – from Stravinsky, to Ravel, to Copland – are identifiable. In their series, Chandos and the BBC Philharmonic with Juanjo Mena, conductor, display the riches of the Choreographic Legend in One Act (1934-37), Panambi, Op. 1 – inspired by the myths of ancient peoples, their rites and violent passions. Panambi is the daughter of a village elder, who undergoes numerous trials at the hands of sorcerers and warriors – with the shimmering sun, riverscapes and primeval landscape creating a South American version of The Rite of Spring.

The new CD also contains a recording of the Second Piano Concerto, with Xiayin Wang – a Chinese soloist who seems to have taken the world by storm, from Costa Rica to Carnegie Hall. A difficult, intensive and technically demanding piece, the Concerto gives the soloist a true challenge, with variations galore, and a vast range of percussive sonorities reminiscent of Bartok– but the whole half-an-hour of its time-span brilliantly brought into one powerful focus, thanks to Juanjo Mena’s conducting and his clear belief in such an unknown masterpiece.

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Despite it being Radio 3’s, or the Third Programme’s anniversary year, I have to ask: has the network gone a bit Gaga? Notwithstanding some wonderful forays into the broadcasting archives: E.M. Forster’s words to the network’s first listeners, reminding us of an earlier (now long-gone) patrician age; and some splendid concerts – a Mahler 5th from Japan in 1991, and a Bruckner 8th from Lucerne only a couple of weeks ago – is Radio 3’s usually-brilliant Tom Service really serious when talking about Alexander Scriabin and Lady Gaga in the same breath?

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

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1 Response to ENDNOTES, November 2016

  1. David Ashton says:

    Another moving comment from Stuart Millson.

    The terrible losses on different sides in the two unnecessary European civil wars must never be forgotten, least of all during the often media-stoked-up rumpus between the English and the Germans who are in fact quite similar peoples.

    A personal point of possible if slight interest. My Devonshire dad volunteered under age in his family naval tradition to “avenge” his gifted brother Arthur killed at the very outset of the 1914-18 conflict, and was sent for land service including Loos and La Bassee. On one occasion his group left their own duck-board “trenches” and managed to capture a German officer base, which was carpeted with a grand piano and rows of “cultured” books! My favorite cousin, also named Arthur, shared my father’s political opposition to a second world war, but once it was declared he went straight into the RAF to defend our islands and was shot down by the Luftwaffe; I recently found a photo of him with two comrades in flying kit.

    Others have better – or worse? – stories to tell, but our national music must continue to commemorate the service that people gave for their country if not for the politicians who send better men than themselves into hell.

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