Two Bantock Tone Poems in One Concert

29/11/2017

Bantock: BBC Philharmonic / Michael Seal (conductor). BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 28.11.2017. (RBa)

Granville Bantock – Fifine at the Fair (1911); Thalaba the Destroyer (1899)

Here is an example of programming which breaks free from the common rut: two works by Granville Bantock in one concert. While Hyperion has recorded four of the composer’s six tone poems, their concert hall life has been vanishingly small.

The concert began with Fifine at the Fair. The longest of the six, by main force it sustained Bantock’s name in the record catalogue after his death in 1946—until the first stirrings of a real revival during his centenary year in 1968.

All six tone poems, written during the composer’s confident thirties, firmly belong in the first decade of the last century. Like most of Bantock’s music, each has a literary basis in extravagant late romanticism. The public taste for legendary exotica took a battering after the Great War, and so did Bantock’s choice of poetry. Fifine was inspired by Browning’s Pippa Passes, a poem whose fortunes these days have not been helped by the congealed convolution of its language. As for Robert Southey, whose verse forms the basis for the somewhat shorter Thalaba the Destroyer, his reputation has sunk even deeper than Browning’s.

Michael Seal conducted with baton, and left the capacity audience in no doubt about an utterly committed feeling conveyed by orchestra and evident on the podium. Fifine is extravagantly orchestrated: two harps, seven horns, triple woodwind and a very large string complement. The latter carry the burden of the first section in passionate gossamer delicacy. The effect is comparable with the writing in Bantock’s fey comedy overture Pierrot of the Minute but the manner is altogether more emotional. The romping and galloping Fair section, which recurred throughout, was both brawlingly raucous and dark. There is just that hint of danger there—the feeling of losing control. The rampant horns, always a favourite with this listener, seemed to relish their moments of full-pelt vivace as well as those pages where they touch in subtle pastels. Clarinettist John Bradbury took on the seductive persona of the dancer Fifine, as had Jack Brymer in the Beecham recording. As the score unfolds, the music is touched with influences: Russian nationalist and early Sibelius. The music has its grave and gentle moments, including at one point an affecting duet for solo violin and solo cello. One aspect of Fifine, heard towards the end, is a candidly sobbing effect in the massed strings. This Tchaikovskian element carries over into the shorter and more mood-concentrated Thalaba the Destroyer.

Thalaba, receiving its first public performance since the early years of the last century, had me wondering whether its Oriental subject would bring the sort of musical accents heard in Omar Khayyam. With the exception of some dark-hearted Balakirev-style writing for the brass just towards the end this was not present. Instead, there is some influence from Tchaikovsky—perhaps Hamlet. Those emotional sanglotte effects in the strings reach out also towards the groaning passions of the Pathétique. Bantock may have specified a smaller orchestra, only five horns and no harp, but passion and sweep were not compromised. There was a momentary shade of Pierrot in the strings but after some Tchaikovskian pizzicato the music closed—to murmurs of admiration from the audience before the clapping began—amid tragic echoes redolent of Romeo and Juliet.

Fifine at the Fair here received its second performance in recent years in the North-West. It was not so very long ago that it was played in Macclesfield. Michael Seal is no stranger to Bantock. He conducted The Frogs at the Salford Quays series of concerts in 2016 and the Pagan Symphony with the BBC Symphony Orchestra later that year. I wonder if we will ever hear the tone poems Lalla Rookh and Hudibras. Sadly the odds are probably stacked even higher against Bantock’s ambitious large-scale vocal/orchestral works lauded in their own time: The Song of Songs and The Great God Pan.

More Bantock, if smaller in scale, this weekend. This will be heard in Port Sunlight on the Wirral, within hailing distance of Bantock’s old stamping ground in the long-ago demolished The Tower, New Brighton. The Port Sunlight Orchestra and cellist Elizabeth Elliott tackle his Sapphic Poem for cello and orchestra on 3 December 2017.

Rob Barnett

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