Julian Anderson, Delius and Elgar in a Fascinating Evening With the London Philharmonic

March 27, 2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Julian Anderson, Delius, Elgar: Roderick Williams (baritone), London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor), Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 24.3.2012 (CG)

Julian Anderson: The Discovery of Heaven (world première)
Delius: Sea Drift (1903-4)

Elgar: Symphony No 1 in Ab Major, Op 55 (1907-8) We had two conductors tonight; the young Ryan Wigglesworth for the Anderson, and Sir Mark Elder for the Delius and the Elgar.

The Discovery of Heaven is Julian Anderson’s latest orchestral work for the London Philharmonic, of which he is composer in residence. It is a piece in three movements influenced by a novel by Harry Mulisch, and Japanese Gagaku music, which is the oldest Japanese classical music. Several composers have shown an interest in Gagaku in the past, including Messaien, Britten, Alan Hovhaness, and Henry Cowell. Anderson was particularly attracted to the very high glistening textures this music often has, and consequently the woodwinds have a hell of a lot to play in this piece. Mind you, it’s also a workout for everyone else – Anderson does not generally do “simple” for very long!

The first movement, entitled “An Echo from Heaven,” starts arrestingly; phrases with long notes in the woodwind terminate with dazzling squiggles. At first separated by silences, they gather momentum progressively until there’s an absolute mass of trembling sounds from the orchestra. It is tremendously effective. The second movement, “In the Street,” is something of a collage of the chaotic sounds one might hear in a busy city thoroughfare; it develops into quite an infernal racket with various types of music popping up from here, there, and everywhere. The last movement, “Hymns,” is far more lyrical at first, but elements of the second movement return to interrupt and almost destroy Anderson’s melodies. Finally, we are left with lapping string music which dies away with no resolution.

Advertised at seventeen minutes, but actually lasting a good deal longer, there was a lot to take in on a first hearing. There is no doubting Anderson’s amazing orchestral fluency, as one highly effective section follows another. I did worry that the textures in the second movement became so densely complicated and chaotic as to lose overall effect, and it’s fairly disturbing to see musicians scurrying around their instruments when you can’t hear what they’re playing. I certainly lost the thread during this movement and began to do so again in the third. Does Anderson always employ the most direct means to express his thoughts and ideas? I’m not so sure – but I do need to hear the piece repeatedly to get to grips with it properly. Ryan Wigglesworth and the LPO certainly appeared to cope with it brilliantly.

In the event, it was Delius who was to bring us a little closer to heaven. Sea Drift is frequently praised as Delius’s finest work, and yet, along with most of his output, one seldom hears it performed nowadays. It emerged, beautiful as ever, in this sensitive performance, with Roderick Williams and Sir Mark Elder obviously loving every nuance. No less magical was the singing of the excellent London Philharmonic Choir. It is not surprising that Sea Drift became so popular in Germany and Europe generally; it is full of Wagnerian harmonic and melodic influences and when not being operatic in style has an intimacy not far removed from German lieder. Walt Whitman’s poetry provided the perfect vehicle for Delius’s craft – touching in its portrayal of the lonely seagull who has lost his mate, and simultaneously conveying the aching loneliness of bereavement that we all feel. Don’t ever think that Sea Drift doesn’t have a human dimension!

If Delius was often more German than British, the same could hardly be said of Elgar, especially in his First Symphony, despite the composer being a huge admirer of the Austrian/German symphonic tradition, and the works of Brahms in particular. Few would argue that it doesn’t contain some of his finest music, and it achieved enormous success straight away, with a hundred performances within the first year. Imagine a concert composer of today being recognised in this way!

With its massive dimensions, it takes a skilled and dedicated conductor to guide an orchestra through its complex narrative successfully. Elder is as dedicated as any, and gave a thoroughly well considered, idiomatic and polished account, with the “noble” gestures not overdone, the intimate moments, especially in the slow movement, touchingly but never sentimentally interpreted, and the scherzo perfectly poised. To end a fascinating evening, the finale’s closing pages were genuinely thrilling, marred only by some over-enthusiastic members of the audience being far too eager to shout “bravo!” almost before the music had finished.

Christopher Gunning

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