A Fascinating Programme, Well-Presented by the Alvor Ensemble

29/11/2017

Bax, Barnard, Debussy: Alvor Ensemble (Sarah Newbold [flute], Martin Outram [viola], Katherine Thomas [harp]), The Weston Gallery, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 24.11.2017. (GPu)

Bax – Elegiac Trio

Richard Barnard – ‘Our Great Grief and Joy’

Debussy – Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp

As far as I know (though I am open to correction), Debussy’s Sonate pour flûte, alto et harpe was the first substantial piece of music written for this particular combination of instruments. In doing so he initiated an interesting and potent sound-world, the potency of which has been recognized by many composers since.

Debussy’s Sonate was written in September-October 2015 and had its first performance in November 1916 in the USA (Boston). The first French performance (a private affair) came in December 1916 and the first UK performance (in London) took place in February 1917. Bax wrote his trio for the same instruments in April and May of 1916. Clearly he could not have heard Debussy’s Sonate before writing his own Elegiac Trio, and it is highly improbable that he could have seen a score. It is, I suppose, possible that he might have heard, on the musical ‘grapevine’, as it were, that Debussy was writing / had written a chamber work for flute, viola and harp, and been stimulated to work with the same combination of instruments. Otherwise we are eft with an example of Jungian synchronicity, in which two events are linked not by cause and effect, but what Jung called a kind of ‘acausal parallelism’. There are not, I think, any direct debts to Debussy in Bax’s Trio, but the works are linked by more than just their instrumentation. Both seem to be responses to both public and private events (though not in any simply programmatic fashion) – Debussy wrote out of his emotional disturbance at the outbreak of the First World War and of his own serious illness at the time of composition, the rectal cancer of which he was to die in March of 1918. Bax was born in England, but was fascinated (to put it mildly) by Celtic culture and a supporter of Irish Nationalism (he wrote poems and stories in Gaelic, under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne). Writing the Elegiac Trio when he did, one of the things prominently in his mind, surely, was the failure of what is known as the Easter Rising in April and May of 1916. Doubtless he, too, was disturbed by the slaughter in the wider war. And perhaps, at a specifically personal level his elegiac music remembered an admired acquaintance (and fellow poet) Patrick Pearse, who was executed (on May 3, 1916) for his part in the Easter uprising. It was, after all, in 1916 that Bax also composed his symphonic poem In Memoriam Patrick Pearse, which was left forgotten and unplayed until 1998. Pearse had visited Bax at his home in Rathgar, just south of Dublin. (See the article by Harry White ‘One of Us: when Arnold met Patrick’ in the Irish Independent.)

Bax’s Trio is, unsurprisingly, predominantly melancholy in tone, though its lush harmonies are not without their positive implications at times. There is, though, a disturbed and disturbing quality which permeates this ‘tense’ elegy; this is not a ‘soft’ or tender farewell. In a single movement (some 9 or 10 minutes in performance), we are taken on an emotional journey which ends in G major, more in a sense of hope or desire than in any kind of triumph. En route Bax puts before us some beautifully interwoven, contrasting / complementary timbres in the flute and viola, the first chiefly bright, the second (particularly well played by Martin Outram) richly dark in sonority. For Bax the harp had, inescapably, Celtic associations, though I cannot hear very much in his writing for the instrument that is overly Celtic. The Alvor Ensemble’s account of this interesting trio was emotionally involving and technically accomplished, though there were a few points when I felt, given that they were playing in a small picture-lined room, to an audience of less than a hundred (this really was ‘chamber music’) they might have been a little more delicate (indeed a little readier to reduce the volume!).

Before closing their programme with Debussy’s masterly (and seminal) Sonate, the Alvor Ensemble played a recent work, commissioned by the Ensemble, by the Bristol-based composer Richard Barnard. Virginia Woolf and in particular her letters, had already captured Barnard’s interest in his 2016 song cycle Woolf Letters, for mezzo and piano, in which the sung text is taken from letters Virginia Woolf sent to her sister Vanessa – best known as the (outstanding) painter Vanessa Bell, after her marriage to the art critic Clive Bell. Indeed, one of the letters drawn on in Woolf Letters is the very one which provides the title, ‘Our Great Grief and Joy’ of this trio. It is a letter from Virginia to Vanessa on hearing of her approaching marriage to Bell; the marriage rook place in 1907.

Virginia’s feelings about her sister’s forthcoming marriage involved three people: Virginia, Vanessa and Clive Bell. It is, I suspect, relevant that Virginia was to have a brief ‘affair’ with Clive Bell soon after the marriage. It is not, thus, any kind of coincidence that Barnard’s musical examination of the situation should be written as an instrumental discourse between three instruments, although there is no sense (so far as I could detect on a single hearing) that each instrument ‘represents’ one of those involved. The music is both intricate and affecting; its slow central section (again the work is in a single movement) struck me as particularly fine, full of a sense of loss, but also ‘happy’ enough to suggest some degree of genuine congratulatory ‘joy’. The use of the viola played pizzicato was often very effective, elaborating the trio texture very attractively. I would love to hear this piece again. So far as I could judge, having no score or experience of other performances to go by, the music was sufficiently rewarding for me to feel sure that this was a pretty good reading of it.

Debussy’s Sonate is a decidedly rich piece, rich in emotional complexity and depth, rich in potential (not, of course, for the composer himself, sadly, whose active musical life was almost over, but for many of his successors, in France and beyond – see above). In the hands of the Alvor Ensemble the opening of the first movement, marked ‘Pastorale: lento, dolce rubato’, was gorgeous (though it might have been a little more languorous) in its mingling of sweetness and melancholy, the precision of Debussy’s ear, evidenced in his mixing of timbres, being well articulated by Newbold, Outram and Thomas. I thought, as I listened, of a comment on the piece that I had read, and I was able to track it down at home a couple of days later. In his short book, Claude Debussy: An Essential Guide to his Life and Works (1996), Jonathon Brown has space for only a very comment on this Sonate, but what he says is suggestive: ‘In the threesome of the flute, viola and harp, the first and last instruments in particular are associated with moody joy and breeziness, which adds to the sultry ironies of the dark colours that Debussy achieves’. Even if one might not use precisely the terms that Brown does, it is surely true that the power of this Sonate, as so often in successful works of art, in part resides in the gap between the expectations with which one initially (and inevitably) comes to it and the actuality of what it delivers. Where Brown talks of ‘ironies’ (and I can see why he does), I hear the ‘discrepancy’ more in terms of emotional ambiguity. The balance of emotional impulses throughout the work is, indeed, one of its hallmarks, something these performers articulated very well, in part by some shifts of instrumental balance and dynamics. This was particularly apparent in the central movement (Interlude, Tempo di minuetto), which was played especially well and tellingly. Debussy’s use of the word ‘Interlude’ might seem to suggest that this movement is a kind of stop-gap, a ‘filler’ between two more serious movements. I suspect, however, that this ‘interlude’ is, essentially, the emotional centre of the work. Although the movement is not formally a minuet it evokes the formality of that dance, thus creating a ‘positive’ musical emblem of what was, at that very moment (in both public and private realms) under threat of destruction – social order and the composer’s impulse to form –  while much in the melodic and harmonic dimensions of the movement speak of loss. The result is music of beautiful and moving complexity. In the third movement (Allegro moderato ma risoluto) the opening passage for the harp and viola (played pizzicato) is propulsive and dramatic. There follow relatively happy and considerably calmer sections. The contrasts in mood, and the transitions between them, were well delineated in this performance, which showed the Alvor Ensemble at its best. In this final movement the ‘ambiguity’ (if that is the right word) lies in the alternations of mood, while it is in the ‘Interlude’ that emotions co-exist in a precarious but well-nigh perfect balance. It is said that when Debussy first heard this Sonate performed he observed that it was ‘terribly melancholy – should one laugh or cry? Perhaps both at the same time.’

It is remarkable that Debussy first conceived this as a work for flute, oboe and harp, before deciding that the viola should replace the oboe. This second thought was surely a masterstroke, the viola’s ability to be both a plucked chordal instrument alongside the harp and/or to produce long melodic lines to complement those of the flute ensuring that this particular combination of instruments, for which there seems no obvious pre-Debussy precedent would become an influential model for later composers as well as the vehicle of subtle and resonant piece of musical thought.

Glyn Pursglove

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