Rattle Premieres Maxwell Davies’ Last Work Alongside Large-Scale Berlioz

27/06/2016

Davies and Berlioz: Soloists, LSO Discovery Choirs (chorus masters: David Lawrence and Lucy Griffiths), London Symphony Chorus (chorus masters: Simon Halsey and Neil Ferris), Guildhall School Singers, London Symphony Orchestra, Guildhall Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 26.6.2016. (MB)

Peter Maxwell Davies: The Hogboon (world premiere, LSO commission)

Cast:
The Hogboon – Mark Stone
Magnus – Sebastian Exall
Mother – Katherine Broderick
Good Witch – Claudia Huckle
Earl of Orkney – Peter Auty
The Cat – Capucine Daumas
Princess – Lauren Lodge-Campbell
Bat – Lucas Pinto

Production:
Karen Gillingham (stage director)
Ruth Mariner (assistant stage director)
Rhiannon Newman-Brown (designer)
Sean Turner (associate designer)

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, op.14

Peter Maxwell Davies’s last major work, a children’s opera, The Hogboon, here received its world premiere. It may not be a musical masterpiece on the level of a Birtwistle opera; I doubt that anyone would make such a claim. That, however, is not really the point. It seems to me the very model of a community opera, offering a good story and good music both to amateurs, indeed to children, and to professionals; this was an opportunity and an experience many of those taking part are unlikely ever to forget. We need to do much more of this sort of thing, and who could set a better example than the LSO and Simon Rattle? There was something for royalists too: the work is dedicated to the Queen on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday.

Each house in Davies’s beloved Orkney is said to have its own Hogboon, a familiar spirit who, in return for food and drink left out every night, tends to its family’s wellbeing. In this case, the Hogboon helps Magnus, seventh child of a seventh child, mocked as useless by his Six Elder Brothers, to defeat the Nuckleavee sea-monster, averting the threat of that monster breakfasting on six golden-tressed maidens and the daughter of the Earl of Orkney. How is that accomplished? By music and dance. As a reward, Magnus is betrothed to the Earl’s daughter, and the boy’s brothers receive those golden-tressed maidens in marriage. There is a social and environmental message: care for each other and for the world around us. It is lightly worn, and perhaps all the more convincing for that. Give or take the odd unfortunate updated Tippettism in the composer’s own libretto – ‘Have we shown disrespect to your otherness?’ does not appear to be intended ironically – the story works well over the course of a little under an hour.

So does the score. Davies, needless to say marshals his forces well, offering them apt, challenging, yet eminently performable music. (Performances were certainly eminent on this occasion.) There is bold, large-scale orchestral and choral writing, tuneful solo vocal writing, nothing outstaying its welcome, with a wide variety of expressive means and plenty of variation. For instance, following the opening ‘Nucklavee!’ chorus, a beautifully written (and here, beautifully played) flute interlude leads into Magnus’s song by the peat fire of the heroic deeds to which he believes he will one day be called (and, of course, will). The melody is in many respects quite conventionally operatic; the excellent treble, Sebastian Exall, here and elsewhere took well his opportunity to shine. I am sure we shall hear more from him. Brass from the back of the hall herald the Hogboon’s arrival; there is some splendid post-Mahlerian band music when the players are joined by onstage wind. The Good Witch’s Cat is undoubtedly – well, catlike, her feline vocal and stage presence adding much to the fun of proceedings. Singing and dancing were all very well coordinated. There is even a non-singing role for a Bat, flying through the auditorium, here taken by young Lucas Pinto. And the final farewell – ‘And so goodbye. God bless you all. Goodbye.’ – proves both rousing and moving. Many congratulations to all concerned!

Another splendid example of cooperation was offered by the combined forces of the LSO and students from the Guildhall School, next door. What a wonderful luxury it was to hear the Symphonie fantastique with such large (and excellent) forces, just what Berlioz – for whatever this is worth – always ‘intended’. I counted, for instance, no fewer than twelve double bass players and six harpists: not bad at all for the Barbican. I wonder also whether the circumstances led Rattle to be less idiosyncratic than he has often shown himself to be in recent years. Whatever the reason, this was a far more satisfying performance than I have heard from him in quite some time. The LSO, with its long Berlioz tradition, above all with Colin Davis, but stretching back much further than that, sounded in its element; so did its young guests. Indeed, had I not known, I cannot imagine that I should have guessed this was a ‘combined’ orchestra at all. The fabled attack and precision of the LSO was matched note for note by its partner musicians.

The opening bars of the first movement sounded fragile and intense; indeed, string vibrato considerably more intense than one generally hears, and all the better for it. The introduction was moulded, yes, but not unreasonably so. Indeed, its moulding struck me almost as a musical equivalent to the composer’s unquestionably ‘interventionist’ Memoirs. This was probably a more ‘Romantic’, less ‘Classical’, account than one would have heard from Davis: an exciting new chapter beginning, perhaps? Yet, by the same token, there were times when Rattle would stand back and simply let the orchestra play: another excellent sign for the future. Insanity shone through, but it was not arbitrary: this was disciplined madness. The second movement really danced, with grace and menace: sometimes in turn, sometimes in contest. We heard the cornet solo for once too. The music glittered and was gay; it had splendid swing. And the power of the whirling vortex towards the close was quite something indeed!

I was struck by the extent to which the opening duetting in the ‘Scène aux champs’ was heard musically: this was counterpoint as well as the instantiation of a programme, indeed arguably more the former than the latter. There was dramatic, quasi-operatic tension, although the theatre remained, of course, a theatre of the mind. Beethoven’s precedent was clear: not just the Sixth Symphony but also the Ninth. For music of the music sounded akin to accompagnato or arioso; I began to wonder also about possible Gluckian precedents here. The eloquence to the great melody on the cellos was certainly such that it might have been a vocal solo of its own. Timpani rolls sounded as much symphonically anticipatory as ‘atmospheric’.

That near-verbal – and yet, by the same token, resolutely non-verbal – eloquence continued in the ‘March to the Scaffold’. It was not, though, at the expense of any martial quality; the two tendencies incited one another. Brass were as resplendent as one might have expected, but there was menace in their muffled tones too. The finale proved both catchy and grotesque, and not only from the superlative woodwind. The Dies irae music, whatever the composer’s ‘intentions’, sounded both chilling and, I think, witty. ‘Rollicking’ is perhaps an adjective too readily attached to ‘finale’, but here it seems inescapable. Exhilarating!

Mark Berry

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