Armistice Day is Marked by Great Musical Monuments from the Oxford Philharmonic

12/11/2018

Butterworth, Vaughan Williams & Brahms: Mary Bevan (soprano), David Stout (baritone), Rowan Atkinson (narrator), The Choir of The Queen’s College, Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Owen Rees (conductor). Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford 11.11.2018. (CR)

Butterworth The Banks of Green Willow

Vaughan Williams An Oxford Elegy

Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem Op.45

For better or worse, perhaps it is only the very particular, extra-musical occasion of Remembrance Day that can unite the very different aesthetics of the two pieces in the first half of this concert as against those of Brahms’s great choral work in the second. The turning away by such composers as Vaughan Williams and the young George Butterworth around the turn of the 20th century from the prevailing influence of German Romanticism (which had generally served as the guiding spirit for English composers in the 19th century) paralleled, in cultural terms, the political estrangement between the two countries in favour of a closer connection with France that led to the suspicions and panic which escalated to the First World War. No amount of strewn poppies or other commercialised kitsch can ever sanitise, assuage, or justify that heinous catastrophe, and so perhaps all we can do is to mark the occasion of the Armistice a century ago with one of the great musical monuments created in memory of the dead. The fact that this musical composition is German ought also to remind us that certain basic human concerns and achievements transcend national divisions so as to render such oppositions irrelevant.

Brahms’s setting of various texts from Luther’s translation of the Bible (as culturally significant for German speakers as the 1611 Authorised Version of the Bible is for English, hence ‘German’ Requiem) eschews confessional difference by ignoring the Latin liturgy of the standard Roman Catholic rite for the dead. As such Brahms’s work humanises the act of remembering the dead for those left behind to mourn them – he thought of calling it a ‘human’ Requiem. Owen Rees’s interpretation with the Choir of the Queen’s College, Oxford, and the Oxford Philharmonic generally avoided lingering over any particular section of the seven-movement work, creating less a reflective, abstract meditation than a more urgent and imperative call to such an act of remembrance.

Following a somewhat murky opening in lower strings, the opening movement sprang to life, at first with quiet radiance on the text of the Beatitude quoted (‘Blessed are they that mourn’) and then with joyful alacrity as an extract from a Psalm ensures that ‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy’. The latter text (‘Die mit Tränen säen’) will recall a setting by the forefather of all German choral music, Heinrich Schütz, in whom Brahms showed considerable scholarly and creative interest, and the young voices of The Queen’s choir brought out a lighter, more supple texture that drew out the music’s connections with the Renaissance and Baroque eras quite potently and suggestively. Even in more expansive sections, such as the mighty fugal passages of the second and third movements which perhaps recall the more immediate inspiration of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, they nevertheless still pointed back – as that huge Mass setting also does – to those earlier musical models with the choir’s neatly streamlined execution here. Particularly as those hefty choral statements turn to the major mode after the minor-key openings of their respective movements, the choir brought light and clarity to their contrapuntal complexity.

That choral quality provided welcome contrast in view of a general lack of rubato throughout Rees’s performance, and particularly also as the foreboding beginning of ‘Denn alles Fleisch’ could have encompassed greater mystery, and a more stealthy, deathly tread; and other, calmer passages were generally too brisk to exude necessary consoling balm. It is not necessarily a bad thing to keep ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ from lapsing into any funereal torpor; but ‘Selig sind die Toten’ was too forthright and imposing to emit a sense of comfort or catharsis as it should for the concluding movement, and too great a haste for the triumphant statement in the penultimate movement that ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ mitigated against a more arresting and emphatic delivery of St. Paul’s musing upon the ramifications of the Resurrection.

The two vocal soloists made a striking and contrasting impression, David Stout singing with commanding power and declamatory urgency in observing that mankind’s life is but a shadow without hope in the Lord, in the third movement, and Mary Bevan giving ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ with some vigour and depth in timbre; both imported an almost operatic drama to their music.

The concert opened with the folk-inflected orchestral idyll, The Banks of Green Willow, by George Butterworth whose small, but eloquent, output constitutes a tantalising ‘what if’ of English musical history as his life was tragically cut short at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 (aged 31). After a perfunctory introduction by the solo clarinet, the Oxford Philharmonic then imbued this performance with more grace and charm, rising to a rich-toned and passionate climax, but not precluding more melancholic contributions from woodwind and horn so as to avoid an interpretation of mere escapist, pastoral fantasy, which has given rise to criticism from some quarters (for example Elisabeth Lutyens’s barb about the ‘cowpat’ school of English music).

Another World War had passed by the time Vaughan Williams finally fulfilled his intention to set lines from two poems by Matthew Arnold, The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis (the latter providing the famous poetical description of Oxford as ‘that sweet city with her dreaming spires’, included in Vaughan Williams’s composition). The resulting Oxford Elegy – in which most of the lines are actually delivered by a narrator in spoken form, rather than by vocal soloists or a chorus – does not invoke warfare or violent loss. But it brings to life the legendary figure of a student who supposedly abandoned formal academic life in favour of wandering the countryside to imbibe local lore and wisdom, before disappearing for good. Like John Milton’s Lycidas, there is a tacit reproof of the futile pedantry and indifference of academia and authority as a means to the full development of the soul. But it was the theme of senseless loss that was presumably meant to be brought to mind here, though another Brahmsian choral setting, Nänie, would have made the point of youthful brilliance cut down too soon more immediately.

Even so, Vaughan Williams’s unusual and seldom-heard work is worth reviving occasionally. It owes as much in terms of harmonic colour to lucid, refined colour of Ravel’s sonic world as to the modal contours of English folksong, and the choir’s diaphanous sound here suited that admirably. Rees drew from the orchestra an ideally languorous but pregnant opening that served as the springboard for more effusive climaxes later. The desire to indulge in Vaughan Williams’s lush writing for choir and orchestra together was an understandable temptation, but even taking into account the difficult acoustic of the Sheldonian Theatre, their combined sound was sometimes too dense for this rarefied score, failing to observe precisely makings such as pianissimo and dolcissimo. Rowan Atkinson was the narrator (not so unlikely a pairing in this context, as a graduate of The Queen’s College himself) but was sometimes drowned by the surrounding sonorities. He gave a direct, fairly matter-of-fact account of Arnold’s poetry, rather different from the plumier, more rhetorical declamation by John Westbrook on the notable EMI recording with which listeners may be familiar. But certainly this was no exaggerated or sentimental rendition of the work.

Curtis Rogers

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