Gourlay and BBC Philharmonic Focus on Childhood, Meditation and Peace

20/09/2016

Knussen, Elgar, Payne, Finzi, Britten: Robin Tritschler (tenor),  BBC Philharmonic / Andrew Gourlay (conductor), BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 16.9.2016. (RB)

Knussen – The Way to Castle Yonder

Elgar – Nursery Suite

Payne – Half-heard in the stillness

Finzi – Farewell to Arms

Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem

This was the second of two consecutive British music concerts which the BBC broadcast live on Radio 3. Like all the other fixtures in this studio series, it was given in front of an audience where the tickets are allocated by ballot. It formed part of a ‘strand’ extending into 2017 where the BBC orchestras perform a considerable range of British music.

I recall Oliver Knussen (b. 1952) from the 1970s when Unicorn released an LP of his orchestral music. The Way to Castle Yonder is an overture-scale piece comprising three interludes taken from Higglety Pigglety Pop, an operatic collaboration between Knussen and Maurice Sendak. It’s an opera about childhood fantasies, sumptuous and surreal, as confected from Sendak’s illustrated books. It forms part of a double-bill with the other Sendak/Knussen dream-fantasy, Where the Wild Things Are. The music is suavely dissonant in a Bergian way, full of allusion and colour. The bells play a belligerent part and the piece ends on the long-decaying resonance of a gong-stroke – a metaphor for enchantment.

Elgar quarried sketches and fragments of music from his youth for several of his mature works. The seven movement Nursery Suite is one of these. The movements are brief; none more so than The Wagon (passes) with its evocation of the distant wagon which comes nearer and then recedes; shades of Ippolitov-Ivanov. Highlights included the range of fairy-wing scudding to clodhopping brute force in Busy-ness, the delightful flute solo in The Serious Doll and a deft and extended violin solo from Yuri Torchinsky in the final Dreaming-Envoy.

Back to the comparatively contemporary with the twelve-minute tone-poem, Half-heard in the Stillness (1986), by Anthony Payne who, we are told, describes himself as ‘a passionate Elgarian’. Certainly this is reflected in inspired work for his realisation of Elgar’s Third Symphony and Pomp and Circumstance No. 6. Less celebrated but certainly delightful is his work on Elgar’s So many true princesses. All three works can be heard on a Chandos CD. The notes for the broadcast tell us that the tone poem takes as its starting point Elgar’s Memorial Chimes – written for the Loughborough Carillon. Any Elgarian tang is deeply subsumed. The strings shiver and shimmer close to a tender hush at the start. It’s a work of sometimes disturbingly sustained tension which is not relieved by baleful obdurate brass at various points. It ends as it began.

The composer was present with his wife, the distinguished soprano, Jane Manning and beckoned by Gourlay he went forward to acknowledge the applause. This is a fine atmospheric piece which is a perfect match for the title, imaginatively harvested from T.S. Eliot. As a form the tone-poem seems even more unfashionable than the often critically-interred symphony. However it still has recentish adherents of which Anthony Payne is one. There are at least two others: Robin Walker (b. 1953) and Peter Crossley-Holland (1916-2001). I hope we will hear more Payne and a disc collecting his tone poems and kindred pieces would be very welcome indeed.

From two decades of icy neglect after his death Finzi’s music has risen to the heights and shows no sign of decline. Performances and recordings are now almost commonplace. We even have a recently issued Finzi boxed set of eight discs from Naxos (8.508017). Who knows, perhaps Lyrita will follow suit.

Finzi’s Farewell to Arms sets two poems, one by George Peele (from “Polyhymnia”) and the other by Ralph Knevet (“The Helmet Now”). Finzi paired the settings because of two uncanny similarities – both poems used the image of the soldier’s helmet making a home for bees and of the instruments of war turned to tilling the soil. This diptych – here in the version for small orchestra; not strings alone – is deeply moving. Critical to this was tenor, Robin Tritschler who, from my seat, seemed at first cloudy on the words but very quickly more than rose to the occasion with intelligent emotive delivery. In another theme typical of Finzi the words speak of the passing of time: “O swiftness never ceasing”. Tritschler let us have the T in ‘swiftness’ with suitable emphasis; no trace of today’s odious ‘swiffness’. The little orchestra nicely emulated ‘the ventriloquious drum’ without a drum in sight.

Finzi wrote comparatively little but is held in such outright affection that arrangements have sprung up. More urgently needed – if ‘urgent’ is the word – is the orchestration in true Finzian style of his Thomas Hardy songs. By and large, the ones included on the Chandos disc of the Violin Concerto did not all work and some seemed unsympathetic. Intriguingly Anthony Payne was one of the composers who contributed a Finzi song arrangement to that disc. The songs are one thing but it would also be interesting to hear Finzi’s planned orchestral triptych The Bud, The Blossom and The Berry which, movement for movement, exists in separately recorded entities.

Andrew Gourlay closed the concert with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. It’s a powerful piece, commissioned by the Japanese government – though disclaimed by them – and dedicated to Britten’s parents. Dating from 1940 when Britten was 26, it is in three movements played without a pause. Amongst the various works Britten called ‘Symphony’ this, for me, lays the strongest claim to be so-called. The large orchestra included six horns and a saxophone which apart from its moments ‘in the sun’ also plays as part and parcel of the wind section. The music, which was confidently put across, is flecked with pre-echoes of Grimes and reminders of a composer Britten was later to be associated with, Dmitri Shostakovich. It reminded me once or twice of the snarl and corrosive bite of Kurt Weill’s symphonies. Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem was premiered by Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic and you can hear its second performance by those forces on an NMC disc. Three years after the Britten Howard Hanson wrote his own Requiem symphony (No. 4) also using movement titles drawn from the Requiem Mass.

I do hope that the BBCPO return to this theme soon. A Bax symphony would be very welcome – as would the Moeran G minor (which they did in red-blooded style with Vasili Sinaisky at the Proms in 2009) and more Foulds. Conductors Gourlay and Seal were well chosen and I hope we will see them again.

Rob Barnett

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