Endnotes, 13th March 2017
In this edition: Now Comes Beauty, from EM Records; Vaughan Williams from Norway, reviewed by Stuart Millson; Concert at St John’s, March 1st 2017, reviewed by Leslie Jones
With the English Music Festival (May Bank Holiday, Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire) now only a short time away, how better to celebrate springtime and music-making in our country than with a recent and eye-catching two-CD disc devoted to contemporary British music – but with a slight difference. In other words: expect not atonality, but tunes. Entitled ‘Now comes beauty’ (the name of a work by 56-year-old Cornish-born composer, Paul Carr) the recording comes from EM Records, the recording arm of the Festival, and features the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland – with two pieces in the collection under the baton of Owain Arwel Hughes CBE. And it is Arwel Hughes who sets the pace with the very first work on CD1, the Festival Overture by Matthew Curtis (b. 1959) – a curtain-raiser commissioned for the 2008 EMF. Curtis strongly believes that “the possibilities of ‘traditional’ tonality and form are far from exhausted” and that audiences and musicians alike long for accessible works. The Festival Overture certainly lives up to the composer’s beliefs – a jaunty, “open-road” theme announced by the full orchestra, suggesting an image and atmosphere, perhaps, of an open-top 1950s’ motor-car making its way along country roads through South Oxfordshire. Throughout this five-minute gem of a work, Owain Arwel Hughes shapes all the tunes and phrases with great care and attention, proving that even lighter music can give real pleasure, and is deserving of thorough artistic preparation and recording excellence.
However, a more substantial and introspective piece follows, by David Matthews – now in his 70s, and perhaps the senior and foremost British composer on this disc (Matthews is a symphonist and well-known musicologist). Based upon Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, White Nights evokes the composer’s memories of a love affair which ended for him in 1980 – the composer wandering London streets late at night in the manner of the “dreamer” in Dostoevsky’s original story set in St. Petersburg.
A Norfolk Suite by Paul Lewis (b. 1943) provides local county colour, as does Christopher Wright’s Legend – a 12-minute-long tone poem revealing a haunting image of the Suffolk coastal spot of Shingle Street, where – during the invasion scare of the early war years – locals claim to have seen a burning sea and bodies washed up on the shoreline. Wright’s idea has a parallel, to some extent, with John Ireland’s famous Legend for piano and orchestra, in which the landscape (in this case, the Sussex Downs) brought forth apparitions of mediaeval times. The power and feelings associated with lonely places have always been a characteristic associated with British composers, and we must congratulate Christopher Wright on his writing, which seems to create a spell and a sense of time and tide standing still.
The exuberant 30-minute-long Piano Concerto by David Owen Norris (performed by the composer) brings the collection to its close: a work which has all the showmanship and exciting, intricate detail which you find in every recital and concert by this engaging, often barnstorming soloist. The Andante serioso middle movement shows that English romanticism has emerged in the 21st-century in a new, but recognisable guise – a phrase that could summarise all of the works in this enterprising and definitive EM Records edition.
The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra is fast emerging as one of Europe’s leading recording and performing groups; interested (unlike many continental ensembles) in British repertoire and works that are just off the beaten track. From Chandos Records comes a deeply satisfying, superbly recorded and absorbing CD juxtaposition of two great works by Ralph Vaughan Williams: his Job, A Masque for Dancing (written during 1927-30) and the last utterance of the composer – the Ninth Symphony (1956-57).
Inspired by the Book of Job and by William Blake’s illustrations of the same, Vaughan Williams’s “masque” (he avoided the use of the work, ballet) is undoubtedly one of his greatest works – and an enigmatic work, too, in that it can be listened to purely as a set of symphonic scenes, with the listener content with just the faintest outline of the story: Satan’s Dance of Triumph, for example, and the sixth scene – the sinister, yet doleful Dance of Job’s Comforters, ending with a stunning, tumultuous shock-from-nowhere as the orchestra and, shortly after, organ, thunder out an earth-shattering chord. Pastoral landscapes which may remind listeners of the world of The Lark Ascending are also to be found in Job, with Elihu’s Dance of Youth and Beauty offering an ethereal solo role for the orchestral lead violinist, and the mystical gazing-into-the-distance of the Pavane of the Sons of the Morning creating a feeling of rapture and noble achievement. Sir Andrew Davis, a lifelong champion of Vaughan Williams, conducts – and I suspect that this is the first time the Bergen Philharmonic has performed the piece. If so, Sir Andrew has given his players not only a complete insight into the heart of the work: he has inspired them to impressive heights of performing technique – with splendid, snarling brass where necessary, and the occasional manic, overheating of those passages which suggest rampage and fury. The brass sound of the Bergen Philharmonic is superb, but it may not have quite the majesty and poise of the Philharmonia – whose account of Job under the baton of Barry Wordsworth remains one of my favourite interpretations. But the new “Bergen Job” is undoubtedly (for me) a contender for the best new orchestral CD of the last six months.
The Ninth Symphony, just over half-an-hour in length is the second work on the disc: another mysterious landscape occasionally touching the edges of tonality, with brooding shadows, monoliths, snare-drum and pesante themes evoking ghostly drummers and spectres on Salisbury Plain. A flugelhorn (orchestral soloist, Martin Winter) adds to the strangeness and richness of the score, which ends – not in any great affirmation, but rather, suggesting a world of glowing, declining sunshine at the end of a winter’s day – a brief touch of warmth and light as the universe covers us in darkness.
March 1, 2017, St John’s Smith Square, The London Chorus and New London Orchestra, conducted by Ronald Corp: works by Mozart, Elgar and Lennox Berkeley, reviewed by Leslie Jones
St John’s is an ideal venue in which to present music inspired by religion. Perfectly complementing Mozart’s short but affecting Sancta Maria, K273 and his much larger scale Missa Brevis in F, K192, the first and last items respectively, Mezzo Soprano Olivia Ray was the soloist in Four Poems of St Teresa of Ávila, set to music by Lennox Berkeley. Ray’s spirited performance of this somewhat challenging and austere work was greatly appreciated by the audience. The four songs vary in mood and intensity but all together the piece has an exultant, at times ecstatic quality. We are back in the ineffable, Medieval-monastic world of mysticism and religious ecstasy. Berkeley, indicatively, converted to Catholicism in his twenties. Our only reservation was Arthur Symons’ translation of the four poems, which contain some infelicitous stanzas, such as “What is this ding-dong, Or loud singing is it?”, in Shepherd, Shepherd, Hark That Calling.
The strings are particularly striking in this composition, a quality that also comes to the fore in Berkeley’s scintillating Serenade for Strings, Op.12. The New London Orchestra gave a powerful performance of this four movement work. The first movement, marked Vivace, is lively; the second, marked Andantino, is more introspective in mood; then in the at times turbulent third movement, marked Allegro Moderato, but even more in the angst ridden fourth movement, or Scherzo, marked Lento, we have echoes of Bohuslav Martinu. The Serenade was written in 1939 and both of these composers ably expressed what the programme note calls “the ‘trauma’ of that period”.
The sea, like religion, has inspired some great music. Claude Debussy’s La Mer, The Sea by Frank Bridge and Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes spring immediately to mind. Now Edward Elgar’s beautifully orchestrated Sea Pictures has been re-arranged for choir and orchestra by Donald Fraser, who was in the audience during this performance. Instead of one solo performer, usually a mezzo-soprano accompanied by the orchestra, in Fraser’s re-arrangement all five songs are sung by a choir or chorus. Thus, in the exquisite second song, ‘In Haven’, women sing the first verse, men the second and the whole choir the last. Stick in the muds will doubtless prefer the original (Elgar’s) version.
LESLIE JONES is Editor of The Quarterly Review
STUART MILLSON is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
(Now Comes Beauty, EMR CD037-8. Vaughan Williams, Job & Symphony No. 9, CHSA 5180. For details of the forthcoming English Music Festival, go to: www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk)