Rare Appearances from Bantock, Bowen and Musgrave at this British music concert

14/09/2016

Bantock, Bowen, Musgrave: Lawrence Power (viola), BBC Philharmonic/Michael Seal (conductor), BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 9.9.2016 (RB)

Granville Bantock –  Overture: The Frogs
York Bowen – Viola Concerto
Thea Musgrave – The Seasons

As is often the way, the stars of Bantock and Bowen, born sixteen years apart and dying at about the same age, waned after their deaths. However, the decline can be traced back to the catastrophe of the Great War. Each composer was an unreconstructed romantic even if their styles and musical predilections differed. Bantock favoured the voice and tone poem and even his symphonies seem to have inclined to the illustrative, instinctive and discursive rather than locking on to sonata-form. Bowen’s great gifts were channelled into the symphony, the concerto and the sonata; he even produced a ‘statutory’ set of 24 Preludes in all the keys, a cycle revered by Sorabji. The two composers’ lifetimes overlapped and their heyday years coincided. Their creativity was resilient and continued well past the time when their gifts were being eclipsed; they kept writing nonetheless.

Among the famed works of Granville Bantock (1868–1946) the massive Omar Khayyam stands out. However there are many short works some of which Bantock himself conducted on recordings by Paxton in the mid-1940s. The Frogs (of Aristophanes) – one of a stream of Greek-classical compositions – was in this company. It is dedicated to the conductor Werner Janssen. It has been recorded by Chandos (Rumon Gamba) in its orchestral version and in Frank Wright’s brass band arrangement by Doyen. Coincidentally the Doyen disc features the University of Salford Brass Band conducted by Roy Newsome. The Frogs was a 1935 Proms commission so is a product of Bantock’s final decade. It is by no means ‘a piece of fluff’. It received a confident and often boisterous performance from the BBCPO. Quite apart from sporting a couple of brief references to Pierrot of the Minute this brilliant orchestral essay in not short on lush Straussian grandeur. It stands downstream in line of succession from Dukas and Berlioz. A nice companion to RVW’s much earlier Aristophanic Wasps Overture, I now wonder about Bantock’s other Aristophanes-inspired Comedy Overture: The Women’s Festival.

The Frogs dates from the years of Bantock’s eclipse, but the Bowen is from the first decade of the twentieth century when his prolific creativity stood as high as his fame in the concert hall. The Viola Concerto by York Bowen (1884-1961) is from the same year as his Piano Concerto No. 3. While Lawrence Power is not the only viola player (Lederer; Callus) to have taken up this Concerto, he has done more for Bowen than any other violist in recent times having recorded both the Concerto and the complete music for viola for Hyperion. Power and Seal brought panache borne of confidence to the concerto. Power is a far from impassive performer and at key moments noticeably turns the viola towards the audience often at the most lyrical moments. He moves around a good deal as he plays  There was a moment in the first movement when he came close to toppling the tripod mike-stand behind him. The first movement instantly announces a brilliant late-romantic composer with a voluptuous gift for sounds that we now associate with Korngold. The themes across all three movements are striking and memorable. Soon after the opening bars the soloist engages in a touching duet with the French horn – one of many very fine moments. The movement ends in rapturous swooping triumph. The quiet Andante Cantabile had two episodes where the viola was in tender dialogue with the harp – a moment uncannily predictive of Bax’s later viola sonata and sonata for viola and harp. The creamy high cholesterol finale with its pre-echoes of the outer movements of Bax’s Fourth Symphony holds nothing back. The cadenza is found in this movement and it responded well to Power’s charisma. The viola can sound nasal and constricted but this is not the case with Power who is something of a Campoli of the viola. He has a very rich deep tone and this is maintained even in the very quiet playing to be found in the cadenza. Michael Seal’s well-judged confidence in this music was obvious. Power has star quality harnessed in the service of the music. I like the flamboyant Gordon Jacob concerto (No. 1) and the Arnold but I left this concert feeling that the Bowen was perhaps the finest in a not exactly overcrowded field. This was a very memorable and exciting performance indeed and can be heard on BBC Radio 3 next week.

Eighty years is quite a leap and that was the time lapse between the writing of the Bowen and the concluding Musgrave. Several years ago the BBC marked the 85th birthday of Thea Musgrave (b.1928) and did it in some style. Since then I have not encountered her name that often. This BBCPO studio concert ended with Musgrave‘s The Seasons – an orchestral work in four movements played without a break. The seasons are marked in an unconventional sequence with an upbeat swing: Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer. It was commissioned by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in 1988 and, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, they gave the premiere that year in the Royal Festival Hall. The composer’s programme note claims the work as a metaphor for “the cycles in the life of man”. The idea for the work came to Musgrave from a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was inspired by the following paintings: Piero di Cosimo’s Caccia Primitiva, Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Frozen Delaware, Van Gogh’s Le 14 juillet à Paris, Jasper Johns’ Flag and Monet’s Rue St Denis, Festivities of June 30, 1878.

Musgrave’s orchestral specification includes a very active orchestral piano and lots of percussion; the cyclical resonance of the vibraphone provides dramatic punctuation at several points. The Seasons is no chocolate box effort. It’s a score turbulent with unruly and often sharp-elbowed detail. There’s much commanding work for the brass the writing for which recalls its explosive and protesting role in Malcolm Arnold’s Fourth and Sixth symphonies. While there’s a prominently thorny signature to this score the strings provide a fairly strong contrast. The violin-writing in particular reminded me of the lyrico-dramatic lines to be found in the Alwyn symphonies; indeed in the final section there are pages that sound almost exactly like the rushing angst of the strings in Alwyn’s Hydriotaphia. All in all this is a virtuoso showpiece for orchestra; had it been called ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ no-one would have quibbled. There’s heart and humour in this clashing collage. The cuckoo calls and fragmentary then all but explicit statement by the principal trumpet of La Marseillaise raised smiles. The composer also mentions an inbuilt reference to The Star-Spangled Banner but it is much more discreetly presented than its French equivalent.

If you would like to delve further among Musgrave’s music I would mention a spectacularly well filled CD of three of her concertos on Lyrita, as well as an orchestral anthology on NMC and a Clarinet Classics CD which includes The Seasons.

Michael Seal is currently Associate Conductor of the CBSO. He is a fine conductor with adventurous tastes and an undemonstrative manner although his gestures are by no means Boult minimalist. There is certainly no obstacle here to joyous communication with orchestra and audience. He counts Bantock’s Pagan Symphony and Bowen’s Horn Concerto in his repertoire so he is clearly open-minded. He will be tackling Arnold’s Fifth Symphony with the BBCSO on 8 November 2016 at Maida Vale. Next Tuesday – 13 September 2016 – Seal and the BBCPO give us April-England, one of the masterworks of the Mancunian John Foulds (1880-1939) and a work that vies with Frank Bridge’s Enter Spring, Arnold’s First Horn Concerto, a no doubt coincidental fanfare to the impending eleventh Malcolm Arnold festival and more light Elgar to follow up Dream-Children at the 7 September concert by Andrew Gourlay.

Rob Barnett

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