Italian radiance and English glories
STUART MILLSON enjoys a lavish orchestral tapestry of Italian life and landscape, and the sounds of The Solent at The English Music Festival
The Leopard (Il Gattopardo), by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, is a slow, sunlit, yet uneasy story of Sicily, and the life of one of its noblemen as he surveys a changing, increasingly unfamiliar society at the time of the Risorgimento. The novel, and the film which it inspired, evoke a world of crumbling country estates, distant and dusty fields, the shadow of history and the ties of blood. I have often wondered which Italian composer might best suit this landscape, but somehow Respighi (with his magnificent Roman pines and festivals) and Puccini (fragrant arias and operatic correctness) were not entirely right. It was, therefore, with some excitement that I opened the new Chandos CD of orchestral music by Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), a composer who scarcely features in the concert programmes of this country. It is doubtful if Casella is even that well-known in his native Italy, although it appears that during his lifetime, he played an important role in the nation’s life, not least as an ardent advocate of modernist developments in the Corporazione delle Nuove Musiche.
Casella was a musical nationalist, and, like Respighi, wanted to express the atmosphere of seductive places and scenery, the passions and energies of his land. But in order to perfect his art, the young Turin-born composer sought the cosmopolitan influences of Parisian life, attending the city’s Conservatoire and studying with Gabriel Fauré, whose understated, delicate, highly-classical style possibly provided important musical foundations for the fiery romantics of the younger generation. Casella graduated from the Paris Conservatoire in 1902, and continued to live in the French capital until the second year of the Great War. Beckoned by an important position offered by the Accademia di Santa Cecilia (where he later gave piano masterclasses), the composer used his growing influence to bring Italian music into the European mainstream; Debussy, Stravinsky, and the world of the Central European late-romantics, such as Gustav Mahler. However, Casella’s admiration for the potent Mahler brew of the spectral, the occasionally discordant, and the Wagnerian-Brucknerian style did not prevent him from using the high spirits of Funiculi funicula in his Op. 11, Italia, a substantial, 20-minute tone-poem in four sections. With phrases that also bring to mind Tchaikovsky, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda perform the work with great conviction and colour. Italia draws upon the folk music of Sicily, suggestions of a hard, elemental life: the world, once again, as seen by Lampedusa’s characters.
The longest work on the BBC Philharmonic’s disc is the Sinfonia, Op. 63 (Casella’s Third Symphony), commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and written during the Second World War. The work is characterised by its large-scale gestures, and there is plenty of resounding brass and march-like themes to enjoy, but great poise and late Romantic reflection, too. Casella can be seen as both a nationalist and internationalist; a man who was open to so many influences, and if you buy this disc, as I hope you will, listen for touches of Shostakovich and Stravinsky; all of which add to the quality of what remains deeply Italian music, of and belonging to the European mainstream.
From the romance of Italy, to the glories of England at the end of May. We are in Oxfordshire, on the Henley to Dorchester-on-Thames road, with its verge-side cow-parsley and avenues of trees; the destination, an ancient abbey where an audience will rise to sing Parry’s Jerusalem… It is the evening of the 24th May and the English Music Festival’s opening night has attracted a capacity audience for three world premieres, not by modern composers of our day, but by the sometimes neglected masters of a bygone time.
To many concertgoers, the image of Ralph Vaughan Williams comes from the famous portrait by Sir Gerald Kelly, in which the composer appears as a slightly crumpled, but nonetheless noble, elderly, benign figure: the magus, the elder statesman of a hallowed English tradition. It does seem, in the minds of some, that RVW was perpetually old; and that English music has a certain conservative, inflexible, pastoral core. The historian David Cannadine may have helped to engender this image, especially in his most amusing essay on Sir Edward Elgar: Cannadine posing the question as to whether Elgar was a “musical Colonel Blimp dreaming of a celestial Eastbourne” or a European visionary on the edge of eternity…! So we tend to forget that both Vaughan Williams and Elgar were once young men; that Vaughan Williams wrote an almost atonal Fourth Symphony (full of the tempers and conflicts of the inter-war period); that he was often considered daring and radical; and that many English composers followed equally radical paths, which took some, such as Holst and John Foulds, into the cosmic spheres of Eastern mysticism. English music has, I am proud to say, its celestial Eastbournes, but it also has a much wider and surprising aspect, and that is what the English Music Festival tries to display.
Mrs. Em Marshall-Luck, founder of the EMF, is one of the most ambitious programme-planners of our day. She is not content simply to present the well-known classics, such as The Lark Ascending, but instead, to find the early or lost works of Vaughan Williams, and those of other leading members of the movement known as the English Musical Renascence. And so it was, with a sense of true wonder and discovery, that the audience at Dorchester listened to a “lost” symphonic impression by Vaughan Williams: The Solent.
Dating from about 1902 (the composer was then 30 years old), the work slowly unfolded, almost like a mist rising from the waters; creating a feeling that is often found in RVW’s writing, a strange, inner peace, not exactly a melancholy feeling, but a lonely, drifting, mysterious sense of being on a pilgrimage or voyage of some kind. And as the evening light filtered through the windows of Dorchester Abbey, it was difficult not to feel close to an idealised English heaven. The following words, by the Victorian poet, Philip Marston, which appear on the composer’s original manuscript, describe the essence of the work:
Passion and sorrow in the deep sea’s voice
A mighty mystery saddening all the wind.
Conducted by the excellent Martin Yates, the BBC Concert Orchestra produced a tenderness of tone, and a depth of playing which did full justice to a beautiful piece, which, had it not been for the belief and scholarship of the Festival’s musicologists and organisers, might simply have passed from all memory. How is it possible, acceptable, that so much of our musical heritage has been consigned to such a fate? But not content with one world premiere, the BBC CO also performed Vaughan Williams’ Serenade in A minor, and the Symphony No. 2 in G Major, Op. 32 by Sir Walford Davies, a composer best-known today for his RAF March Past. With its parade-ground bravura, the march is one of England’s best, yet Sir Walford’s “serious” works are undiscovered and unplayed – at least until now! Cast in four movements, and with marvellous passages for the whole orchestra, it felt as if you were striding out with the composer, enjoying fresh air, and views across country; clouds gathering on the Downland horizons, only to be dispelled by sunshine. The bracing quality of this 1910 symphony certainly endeared itself to the players, and as I met friends in the famous inn, The George, situated just opposite the abbey, I was pleased to hear musicians from the BBC CO talking enthusiastically about their discovery of the piece, and how enjoyable and exciting it was to play. Lewis Foreman’s observations in the highly informative programme notes were quite correct: there was, in the opening of the Walford Davies, certainly an echo, a memory of the “pulse” of Brahms’ First Symphony (first movement).
Britten’s Canadian Carnival and Holst’s A Winter Idyll gave yet more pleasure and interest to a concert that must rank as one of the most important of the year. I hope you will agree with me… as the performance, which was recorded by BBC Radio 3, will be broadcast by the network at 2pm on the 26th June. And I wonder if the BBC could be prevailed upon to issue the EMF opening night as a CD…?
STUART MILLSON is the QR’s Classical Music Editor
CD details: Casella, Italia, Introduzione, Corale e Marcia; Sinfonia. BBC Philharmonic/Noseda, CHAN 10768.
For further details of The English Music Festival and EM Records, visit www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk