ENDNOTES October 5th 2015
Atlantic Wall, from modernist, Wim Henderickx * Cordelia Williams enchants us with Schumann * The music of Tudor England * ‘Under the Admiral’s Flag’ – the RSNO marches past with the music of a Bohemian bandmaster
Autumn begins and the Proms now seem a distant memory. Our busy schedule this summer at the Royal Albert Hall led to a build-up of CDs – with many awaiting review, so this edition of Endnotes brings you a taste of some of the backlog. We begin with an austere tone-poem – or rather, an atonal discourse which depicts the atmosphere of a place, by the Antwerp-based, Darmstadt-inspired modernist, Wim Henderickx.
Atlantic Wall, composed in 2012, brings the composer’s own Hermes Ensemble centre-stage in a recording of great quality and complexity; taking the listener to the Western European coastline, to the remnant of World War ll concrete fortifications, which in centuries to come will undoubtedly represent to the Europeans of the future what the mysterious Neolithic circles and barrows mean to us. A detailed and extensive programme booklet, issued with the CD, explains Henderickx’s projection of place:
“… The scores of bunkers no longer serve any purpose – they have been abandoned and no one bothers to demolish them. They are simply ignored. They remind us of prehistoric dolmens and megalithic constructions… Atlantic Wall is the waves and the sea, is water…the rhythmical, incessant battering of the swirling water on the coast… Atlantic Wall is fire. The inner fire of the observer who braves the elements for years to watch the horizon.”
It is somewhat unusual to find such overtly programmatic music from a general movement of composers, known for their abstractions – their processing of sounds which deliberately seek to break the conventional moods, ideas and tonality of music. For those who find even Mahler or Schoenberg dangerously fragmented, Atlantic Wall is a work which would probably be beyond any understanding. But if you are prepared to unlock the door into this world where a new language exists; to abandon your preconceptions, you are sure to find a strange power in Henderickx’s gloomy sea-cliffs of decaying concrete*.
In complete contrast, Cordelia Williams (BBC Young Musician piano winner from nine years ago) takes us to calmer waters, in a Schumann programme which leaves you in no doubt about the pianist’s quality – and ability to bring the mid-19th-century timbre of this German romantic to life. The two books of Davidsbundlertanze (Op. 6) are performed with all their magical, ennobling properties – these ‘Dances of the League of David’ derived from a musical movement created by Schumann and inspired by the symbolism of King David in opposition to the Philistines. The Op. 17 Fantasie in C also appears in Cordelia’s enchanting collection (on the Somm label), as does one of the composer’s last works, the six-part (but each, very short) Geistervariationen – inspired by a visitation from angels. What greater testament could there be to the romantic imagination and lyrical beauty of Robert Schumann, than the homage paid by his 21st-century interpreter and soul-mate, Cordelia Williams.
It is thought that the English composer John Taverner was born in 1490 – Taverner becoming one of the Tudor era’s finest composers of church music. Gimell Records brings us the Tallis Scholars, recorded in ethereal form – possibly one of our finest, if not the finest of our specialist choirs, absorbed as they have been for the last 40 years in early music, and in the works of the Tudor and Elizabethan era. Their conductor, or director, is Peter Phillips, who steers his scholars through a monumental piece: the Missa Corona Spinea – the Mass of the Crown of Thorns – a work that was probably first performed in front of Henry Vlll and Wolsey.
For Mr. Phillips, there is an undoubted additional sacred resonance to this early landmark of English music – the conductor describing the piece with reference to Shakespeare’s idea of ‘Music of the Spheres’. We often think of Tallis’s Spem in Alium (which dates from about 1570) as the summit of our musical achievement at that time, but listening to the Gloria and Credo from Taverner’s vision of a crown very different from that warn by King Henry, reminds us of a master-architect of the great arches and spaces of church music.
Finally, from Chandos, we move to Prague, to the Gulf of Trieste – to the world of Austria-Hungary and the marches and landmarks of an empire, destined to disappear in the Great War. Julius Fucik, who died at the age of 44 – two years into World War One – was a Bohemian composer of marches and light tone-poems, and bandmaster of the 86th Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army, based at Sarajevo.
A recently-issued collection, performed with verve and an appetite for colour and a good tune by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Neeme Jarvi, brings the almost forgotten figure of Fucik back to life. His most famous piece (although hardly anyone seems to know of its composer) is the March of the Gladiators, a boisterous prelude to traditional circus entertainment. However, a more poetic side to Fucik is presented in the Wintersturme, Op. 184 of 1906, and the melodious Danube Legends. The glories and grace of the old European empires are evoked in the 1912 Overture, Miramare, a depiction of the palace, close to Trieste, built for the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian. An American march, The Mississippi River, dating from 1902 confirms the feeling that Fucik was Europe’s answer to Sousa; as does his 1901 march Under the Admiral’s Flag, which was played at the launch of a battleship – a ceremony presided over by the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Another full-bodied Chandos recording, with the RSNO in sparkling form – and a fitting memorial to a composer whose untimely early death, and neglect, is one of the sadder stories of late-19th, early-20th-century music.
*The Wim Henderickx collection, entitled Triptych, is available on the Hermes Ensemble’s own label
The new Tallis Scholars CD of Taverner’s music will be available from the 30th October
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review