Endnotes, May 2018
In this edition: a revelation from Roussel; Elgar, choral and orchestral music, reviewed by STUART MILLSON
The music of Albert Roussel makes only the occasional appearance in British concert programmes or recording catalogues, with French 20th century music dominated by Debussy and Ravel. Yet Roussel’s works continue the shimmering, symphonic impressionism of those defining 20th-century masters – with the Gallic dry wit and nervous energy of Milhaud or Ibert also figuring in the idiomatic cocktail.
Surprisingly, Karajan recorded the Fourth Symphony with the Philharmonia in his EMI London era of the 1950s – pairing the work with Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes. It was arguably during this overlooked period in his recording career that the German maestro set down his most interesting and unusual repertoire, with Vaughan Williams and Britten also making an appearance.
Newly-issued by Chandos Records comes a sumptuous Roussel collection given expert and passionate treatment by conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra – especially in the large-scale, India-inspired Évocations, a substantial, three-movement choral-orchestral work from 1912, for baritone, mezzo-soprano and tenor. Matching Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe in its fragrant evocation of warmer climes and ancient landscapes, Roussel opens his panorama in a style reminiscent of the Lever du Jour (morning) sequence of that famous ballet. Except that here we are not in a classical idyll, but in a world of Hindu temples – and of caves hewn out of rock. The three movements are named: Les Dieux dans I’ombre des caverns (The Gods in the gloom of the caves); La Ville rose (a portrait of Jaipur); and Aux bords du Fleuve sacré (the banks of the sacred river – in which: “The sun has plunged into the sea/And the scent of the trees/Summons all the birds to their nests/The fields of lotus shut the eyes of their blossoms…”)
Suffused with colour and poetry, but with the mood at times tightened and changed to something awe-inspiring – Évocations concludes with a mighty choral-orchestral declamation which, in its ecstatic sustaining of energy and reverberating chords, rivals the hymn to the sun at the end of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder:
“Hail to you who created the days.
You who each morning scatters over the pinnacle of the mountains
The shower of your new rays.
You chase before you the vast army of the stars.
And your impassioned beauty reigns supreme
Over the ocean of the blazing skies.”
The words are a translation of 5th-century Sanskrit texts. But this dazzling vision has no predictable ending: the last moments of grandeur slide away into a meditative mystery – the music returning quietly into nothingness – with the BBC Philharmonic revelling as much in the shadows as the full-blooded highlights. Special mention must be made of soprano, Kathryn Rudge – her voice, so authoritative, can soar and penetrate right to the back of the largest hall; a voice which belongs to a previous era of opera and lieder singers – perfect phrasing, a real depth of tone – bringing to mind such figures as Elizabeth Bainbridge, Norma Procter and Jennifer Vyvyan.
In contrast to Roussel’s orientalism is the well-structured, straightforward, Victorian English church music of Edward Elgar but bearing the seeds of his masterpiece, The Dream of Gerontius. Conductor Barry Wordsworth, over a long conducting career – much of it spent with the BBC Concert Orchestra – has given us sterling service as far as ballet and English music is concerned. On this new disc from the Somm label, he brings his old orchestra – and the excellent, weighty Brighton Festival Chorus – into the service of the provincial Elgar: the Roman Catholic quietly attending to his duties and devotions in local Worcestershire churches and at county music festivals.
Written for his beloved (and baptismal) St. George’s church, Elgar’s Ecce sacerdos magnus (Behold the high priest) celebrates a visit in the October of 1888 by the Bishop of Birmingham. Somehow the spirit of the work unites the Victorian semi-rural West Midlands with the lands of the Bible – the “countenance divine” on the village green.
Also on the CD, from 1897, comes the Te Deum and Benedictus– a work prepared for the opening of the prestigious Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral; and from 1912 and 1914, respectively, Great is the Lord (Psalm 48) and the well-known, Give unto the Lord– a setting of Psalm 29, with Elgar’s unique stamp of nobility and spirituality. Recorded at the Watford Colosseum, this is an insight into a particular side of Elgar’s personality. But the CD also offers the contrasting Spanish Serenade and that period piece of picture-postcard tone-painting, the 1895 Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands. Behold Elgar the Englishman abroad, relishing the bucolic festivities at a country inn, deep in the German countryside.
CD details: Roussel, BBC Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Chandos catalogue, 10957
Elgar, Music for Chorus and Orchestra, BBC CO/Brighton Festival Chorus, SOMMCD 267
Stuart Millson is QR’s classical music editor