Destruction of Palmyra Inspires New Cello Concerto by Bray

15/08/2016

Proms

Prom 39 – Haydn, Charlotte Bray and Mahler: Guy Johnston (cello) BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 14.8.2016. (CS)

Charlotte Bray, Guy Johnston and Sakari Oramo. Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou.

Joseph Haydn: Symphony No.34 in D minor
Charlotte Bray: Falling in the Fire (BBC commission: world premiere)
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.5 in C# minor

Charlotte Bray’s programme notes for Prom 39 told us that her new concerto for cello, Falling in the Fire, was inspired by ‘moral outrage’ at the destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra in August 2015, and seeks to ‘comprehend such tragic and traumatic events and create something to which others may equally relate’.

Despite its descriptive title, Bray insists that the work is neither a narrative nor a pictorial response to those events; rather, it is an abstract reflection on this specific situation and on war in general. Indeed, Bray professes to have embraced an ambitious sweep of ideas and elements: ‘the emerging humanitarian crises’ formed ‘the body’ of the work, ‘along with the motivating factors of power, identity, religion, humanity and territory’, while the documentary journalism of Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya in 2011, was also a motivating force.

That’s a lot to pack into a twenty-minute concerto! And intense rumination and mediation on such incomprehensibles and unfathomables frequently leads the music inwards: it is dominated by elegiac passages which move from wistful poignancy to pained alienation, to an almost existential absence. However, these episodes do alternate with direct ‘events’ in which ripping lines jag and snare, and low rumblings groan as if from the bowels of the earth or buzz like a reconnaissance plane overhead. It’s a disturbing aural montage of interior and exterior trauma.

Bray summons diverse colours from her large orchestral forces, and the timbres she conjures make a striking impact: primal percussive beatings, squealing woodwind, iridescent string tremolos, surging brass. Against this volatile background cellist Guy Johnston had to work hard and too often the solo cello disappeared into the orchestral texture. It may have been because I was seated at the opposite side of the RAH to Johnson, but even the first solo statement – the angst-ridden double- stopping perfectly executed – had to combat against bombastic percussion and insistent brass … and lost. When Bray did create space for Johnston’s lines to speak, the cellist’s phrasing was eloquent and the tone well-focused, even in the most fragmented passages. There was a sustained ‘searching’ quality, a sense that he understood what the composer was trying to communicate. Such ideas and feelings are probably best not confined within the definitiveness of language, and Johnston presented the moments of pathos with directness and accessibility.

It might be thought that the RAH does not lend itself to quiet introspection, and that the acoustic is particularly unhelpful to solo cellists. But, on several occasions this season soloists, and composers, have refuted this assumption. Earlier in the season the introspective concentration of Alban Gerhardt’s performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Cello Concerto was compelling; and, just two nights previously, brothers Huw and Paul Watkins gave us music and playing of gentle eloquence and intimacy (review) when Paul premiered another of the season’s newly commissioned cello concertos.

That much profound thought and emotion are embodied in Bray’s new concerto is without doubt, and she is not without skill as an orchestrator. But, I was left feeling that the Bray, despite being a cellist herself, had somewhat misjudged the concerto form and/or the RAH acoustic; or, rather, and more fairly, that the work’s wealth of inventive material had out-grown the commission, and might find a better home re-cast in an alternative format.

It seems incredible to think that the opening work of the programme, Haydn’s Symphony No.34 in D minor, was also receiving its first performance at the Proms. One of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang symphonies, its expressive weight lies in the opening D minor Adagio and conductor Sakari Oramo drew some fine, dark playing from his reduced string section, complemented by the horns’ grimly resonant pedals and the oboes’ alleviating sweetness. Oramo had a strong appreciation of the breadth of the phrasing and movement-structure. With the minor key more or less now left behind, the impulsive fieriness of the succeeding Allegro highlighted the accuracy and ensemble of the BBCSO’s violin sections, and, as dynamics and motifs darted this way and that, the clarity of Oramo’s guidance. The Menuet and Trio re-established Classical grace and balance – the horns’ syncopated accompaniment to the oboes’ folky Trio theme offered a cheeky challenge to the equanimity though – while the bucolic Presto assai romped home with joyful fleetness from the strings and rambunctious fanfares from the horns.

In moving from a minor to major tonality, Haydn employed a device that would later become a hallmark of those Viennese giants of the symphonic repertory, Beethoven and Mahler. And, so it was fitting that Mahler’s Fifth Symphony followed after the interval.

Oramo’s Mahler was characterised by clarity of structure, generally transparent textures and fairly swift tempi. But, it was all a tad too ‘cool’ for my liking. Not that I want my Mahler served up with lashings of angst and dripping sentimentality; or wallowing in self-indulgence. But, I would have liked a bit more Mahlerian ‘wilt’ as the music’s bitter-sweetness tugs and pulls the heart-strings. This is music which roves between ecstasy and agony; animating optimism and debilitating despair. Orama was the epitome of level-headedness and reliability. Not qualities to be sneezed at – and the BBCSO played with an accomplishment and comfortableness that confirmed the strength and happiness of their relationship with their Chief Conductor; but, I longed for some rather more uncompromising statements of intent.

The opening funeral march lacked the weight needed to establish that a momentous journey is about to commence. The strings – initially less in accord in terms of ensemble – were often overshadowed by the emphatic brass. The Allegro which followed had plenty of zip but was not especially stürmlich; though once again the BBCSO showed their technical mettle and unity of expression, in the cellos’ lyricism – which refrained from effusiveness – and the brass’s glowing chorale, which was not quite permitted to bloom unbounded.

There was strong playing from the horns, again, in the Scherzo, a movement which seemed to suit Oramo’s light-weight, if not light-hearted, approach. Strings and harp played expressively in the Adagietto – for which the tempo was not-too-slow, not-too-fast, so, probably about right (!), without suggesting anything particular personal in interpretation. But, it was a shame that Oramo did not ask his fiddles to play even more softly to conjure that mild gentleness and fragile sweetness that is only possible when the members of a large sections of strings each contribute just the barest whisper, each of their delicate threads bound tightly within the diaphanous whole. The brisk last movement flashed swiftly by and blazed to its expectedly triumphant conclusion, but the symphony as a whole didn’t quite catch fire.

Claire Seymour

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