A Cheltenham Commemoration of Scott of the Antarctic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Conquering the Antarctic:  Hugh Bonneville (narrator), Robert Murray (tenor), Katherine Watson (soprano), Bath Camerata & Wells Cathedral School Chamber Choir (female voices), City of London Sinfonia, Stephen Layton (conductor). Cheltenham Town Hall  8.2.2012 (JQ)

Vaughan Williams:  Excerpts from Scott of the Antarctic (1947-8)
Cecilia McDowall
: Seventy Degrees Below Zero (2012)
Vaughan Williams
: Symphony No 7 Sinfonia Antarctica (1949-52)

As part of its 40th anniversary season the City of London Sinfonia is touring this programme, which marks the centenary of the ill-fated expedition to the South Pole led by Captain Robert Scott. It has already been heard in Birmingham, Cambridge and Cardiff and it can be heard again in London in a few weeks’ time. Cheltenham was a most appropriate place to present this programme since one of Scott’s four companions, who perished with him, was Dr Edward Wilson (1872-1912) who was born in the town – indeed, less than a mile from the Town Hall – and who was educated at Cheltenham College. Wilson had been with Scott on his earlier expedition to Antarctica (1901-1904) and was one of his right-hand men on the 1910-12 expedition.

As well as being very well performed this was the most imaginatively planned concert that I have attended in years and whoever thought up the programme – and the order in which the music was played – deserves great credit. Credit is due also in respect of the exemplary programme book, which was packed with interesting information and evocative illustrations.

We began with excerpts from the music that Vaughan Williams wrote for the 1948 Ealing Studios film, Scott of the Antarctic. RVW’s imagination was so fired by the story of Scott’s expedition that he composed a substantial score. In fact, he wrote so much music that only about half of it was used in the film. When Stephen Hogger edited the score into a suite a few years ago it ran for just over forty minutes. The Chandos recording by Rumon Gamba (review) is revelatory, not just for reminding us of the music that the composer later extracted for Sinfonia Antarctica but also – and more importantly – for letting us hear much high quality music that didn’t find its way into the symphony. Hogger’s suite contained 18 numbers. Stephen Layton played only five, amounting to some twenty minutes of music, but any disappointment that more of RVW’s music was not heard was quickly dispelled by the manner in which it was presented.

Actor Hugh Bonneville (known to millions as Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey) read extracts from the diaries that Scott kept during the expedition; the extracts mainly covered the last, disastrous phase between December 1911 and the deaths of Scott and his companions in March 1912. For the most part, Bonneville read between musical numbers but sometimes his narration was over the music. His delivery was understated and very English; he scrupulously avoided histrionics, which was greatly to the benefit of the words he read. By taking this approach Bonneville subtly but clearly brought out the dignity and amazing courage of Scott and his companions. The cumulative impact, as we moved from Scott’s cheerful and very positive assessment of the qualities of his companions before they set out on their great trek to the final days, when the realisation of their impending doom became increasingly evident to all of them, was immensely moving. The extracts from Vaughan Williams’s score, shrewdly chosen, underlined and enhanced the spoken words. At the end applause seemed almost an impertinence.

This set the scene extraordinarily well for Cecilia McDowall’s new work, Seventy Degrees Below Zero. This piece was commissioned for the tour and received its première in Birmingham on 3 February. The work, which lasts for just short of twenty-five minutes, is for solo tenor and a small orchestra which, so far as I could see, consists of strings, woodwind, pairs of horns and trumpets and a limited amount of percussion. It’s in three movements. In the first two the tenor sings settings of poems specially written by the poet, playwright and author, Seán Street. In the final movement McDowall sets Captain Scott’s letter which he addressed ‘To my widow’ and which was found on his body when a search party stumbled across his body and those of two of his companions some eight months after their deaths.

I’ve heard on disc and admired quite a few pieces by Cecilia McDowall. Her style is accessible but can challenge the listener, as was the case here. I’m wary of judging a work at a single hearing but my strongest impression was that the music displayed the influence of Benjamin Britten both in the vocal line and in the writing for orchestra. I will freely confess that, even though the texts were printed in the programme, I did not find it easy to get to grips with Seán Street’s words – and that’s still true the morning after the concert, when I’ve had chance to sit down and study them quietly.

In the first movement, ‘We measure’, the tenor has an often agile line set against a busy orchestral accompaniment. Though the orchestral writing is energetic and strong McDowall’s scoring is sensible and never overwhelms the soloist – that’s a feature common to all three movements. Robert Murray made a very favourable impression. His voice was clear and cleanly produced and was even throughout its compass. There was a pleasing ring to his voice and he sang with conviction. The second movement, ‘The Ice Tree’, proceeds at a slow basic tempo and opened with some glacial string writing. The music had the air of a lament, though I’m not entirely sure that the poem itself strikes such a note. The vocal line is plangent – certainly Mr Murray made it sound that way – and at times icy woodwind roulades are a feature of the accompaniment. The angst in the vocal line once again called to mind Britten’s writing – the more so, perhaps, because the singer was a tenor. This movement is hugely demanding of the soloist, I should think, but Robert Murray met and surmounted the challenges and sang most expressively. For the final movement, ‘To my widow’, McDowall turned to the words of Captain Scott himself.  The vocal line – and, indeed, the accompaniment too – was very intense and Murray delivered it strongly and with great conviction. As in the first movement, the orchestral writing is, for the most part, quite busy. The words reveal the sadness of Scott, who knew by then that he would never again see his wife and baby son, and they also show his courageous dignity. I thought that McDowall’s music conveyed the sadness very well but the emotion in her writing is pretty raw and, for me, she failed to convey the stoic dignity. In that respect I suspect High Bonneville more accurately reflected the man.

The title of Seventy Degrees Below Zero is a phrase used in Scott’s letter – he and his companions were having to contend with such temperatures. Miss McDowall, who was present, has produced an eloquent and affecting work, which I should like to hear again. Her music received splendid advocacy from Robert Murray who was strongly supported by Layton and his orchestra.

After the interval came Sinfonia Antarctica and here the devisers of the programme achieved something of a coup. As RVW’s music was being played a series of black and white photographs were projected onto a screen behind the orchestra. These photographs were taken during Scott’s 1910-12 expedition by Herbert Ponting, the expedition’s official photographer. The images were remarkable in their clarity despite their age and to say that they were evocative would be a massive understatement. Whether the pictures were of landscapes, wildlife or the members of the expedition they brought the Antarctic wastes and the brave men who pitted themselves against that environment vividly to life. The images changed every twenty seconds or so and I would guess we saw at least 150 as the symphony unfolded. In no way did the pictures distract attention from the music; rather the music and pictures complemented and enhanced each other.

Stephen Layton led a very fine performance. The last two performances of this work that I’ve heard have been given in substantial churches – Gloucester Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey. Cheltenham Town Hall is a smaller building and has a less resonant acoustic so there were gains and losses. The principal gain lay in the clarity with which one could hear details of Vaughan Williams’s hugely inventive orchestration. On the debit side, the size of the hall meant that it simply wasn’t possible to position the soprano soloist and small chorus of female voices at a distance. This meant that their excellently sung contributions to the first and last movements were a bit more ‘present’ than I would have liked. I wonder also if, had there been a larger stage at their disposal, the City of London Sinfonia might have fielded a slightly larger string section. From my seat I couldn’t see the whole orchestra but there were five desks of first violins, five cellos and three double basses and I presume the second violin and viola sections were in proportion. Vaughan Williams scored the work very fully, deploying large brass and percussion sections. Though the orchestral sound was pretty well balanced for much of the time I think the string section was a little on the mall side for such a big work.

The performance was a fine one. Stephen Layton conducted incisively – his beat is very clear – and with evident commitment to the music. The orchestra responded with ardent playing, though when sensitivity was required – in the Intermezzo movement, for example – they weren’t found wanting. The singers were excellent. The ladies of Bath Camerata and Wells Cathedral School Chamber Choir – probably about twenty in number – sang from a balcony above the platform and to the conductor’s left. They produced clear, precise singing in wordless music that must be far from easy to pitch and sustain accurately. The soprano soloist, Katherine Watson, was placed behind the strings and harp, also to the conductor’s left. Her role is a challenging one, for the most part in a demanding high tessitura. It’s not easy music by any means but she acquitted herself well, even if the ethereal quality that RVW surely had in mind was missing because she was positioned on stage.

I thought Mr Layton had the measure of the music. He paced it well and brought out the implacable grandeur and the forbidding nature of the polar environment which RVW evoked so magnificently in his score. There may not be much in the way of traditional symphonic development in this work but that is compensated by some memorable thematic material and, above all, by some amazingly imaginative and inventive orchestration. My only regret was that at the huge climax to the central ‘Landscape’ movement the orchestra was not reinforced by what Michael Kennedy has aptly called “the sensational blast of chords from the organ”. I’m not aware that the organ part is ad lib and I’ve never head a performance in which it’s been omitted. Since Cheltenham Town Hall has a perfectly good organ I’m unsure why the part was left out.

Still, this was the sole disappointment in what was otherwise a memorable evening. The performances were first rate and the music was impressive. But what placed this concert in a special category was the intelligence behind the whole concept. Each of the three items on the programme led us further into the Scott story so that by the time we reached the end of Sinfonia Antarctica and the sound of the female voices and the wind machine died away the audience had been taken, with the aid of words, music and pictures, on a deeply moving journey that was as epic and heroic as it was tragic.

There is one more chance to catch this programme, at Cadogan Hall, London (3 March, 19.30). Take the opportunity if you can.


John Quinn