United Kingdom PROM 51, Tippett, Britten, Elgar, Ian Bostridge (tenor), London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding (conductor). 20.8. 2013, Royal Albert Hall, London (CG)
Tippett: Fanfare no. 5 – Fanfare from The Mask of Time arr. M Bowen. (1986)
Concerto for Double String Orchestra (1938-9)
Britten: Les Illuminations Op.18 (1939)
Elgar: Symphony no 2 in E-fat major Op 63 (1909-11)
Tonight’s concert by the LSO was dedicated to the memory of Sir Colin Davis, who would have conducted it had he not died in April of this year. Roger Wright, in a programme tribute, wrote that Sir Colin would have included a symphony by Sibelius as well as the works by Britten and Tippett. Davis loved Sibelius but in the event we had Elgar’s Second Symphony instead, included because “it is a piece which contains farewell references; it is by a composer close to Colin’s heart and of whose music he was such a very fine interpreter.”
If you thought this programme was to be a “safe” celebration of British music from the early 20th Century, think again. All three composers in their different ways were affected by the politics of the period and this was one of several reasons why the evening proved to be so interesting and affecting.
For me the Tippett fanfare, performed with appropriate gusto by the LSO’s brass and percussion, managed to outstay its welcome even in its brief five minutes, but if it’s hardly top-drawer stuff, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra most certainly is. Its sprightly, jazz-influenced rhythms knocked players a-back in the 1940’s and it took a recording by the young Benjamin Britten for concert promoters and audiences to wake up to the fact that this is a highly original, brilliantly constructed, and wonderfully attractive piece. But this is not simply “easy listening” music. In 1939 Britain was about to be plunged into World War II, and it shows in the uneasy counterpoint between opposing forces, as well as the deeply expressive music in the central, slow movement.
Many of Tippett’s hallmarks are to be found here: the counterpoint stems from Baroque influences, the forms hark back to Beethoven, and of course those bluesy/jazzy melodic inflections which help give much of Tippett’s music its very personal flavour, are present too. That middle movement is particularly beautiful, and here Tippett’s love of folksong plays a role. If both Tippett and Britten were to react against the nostalgia of Vaughan Williams’s view of folk material, and find new ways of doing things, they both shared the senior master’s love of it.
In 2013, players no longer find any difficulty in tackling Tippett’s cross-rhythms, as was demonstrated by the strings of the LSO under Harding. The outer movements were lively and pointed, and the middle movement simply beautiful, with calmly expressive solos from Carmine Lauri (the leader) and Rebecca Gilliver (cello.) Overall, I loved the unforced way in which the piece was interpreted by the soloists and ensemble as a whole.
Britten was working on Les Illuminations at the same time as Tippett was composing his Double Concerto, and juxtaposing the two works demonstrated some of the radically different ways in which the two composers thought – as well as some similarities. Britten would always be the more “natural” of the two, composing at a rate of knots, and producing works with a flair for melody, texture, colour, and a genius for working in relatively small-scale forms which nevertheless pack a powerful emotional punch. No doubt some of the turbulence of the settings is attributable to the imminent war; Britten, like Tippett, was to become a conscientious objector, and sought temporary refuge in the US, and how destabilising the times must have been to the young composer.
The nine main sections which make up Les Illuminations are settings of poems by Arthur Rimbaud, whose hallucinatory way of looking at things greatly appealed to Britten. The string writing is astonishingly fluent and varied for a composer in his mid-twenties, and the word setting already shows Britten in command of techniques which would see him through to the end of his life, even if he would always be happiest when setting the English language. How lucky we were to have the opportunity of hearing the remarkable Ian Bostridge let loose on this early and appealing work. Clear diction, perfect intonation, a vocal quality which simply melts your heart but is strong enough to carry to the farthest reaches of the Albert Hall – what more could you possibly want? One almost felt Bostridge to be a perfect synthesis of Rimbaud and Britten as he swooped and dived, yet gave us sensual cantabile lines when needed. I felt this to be a quite outstanding performance, with Harding and the LSO’s strings doing everything just perfectly. And yes, of course we thought of Colin Davis and all our other departed friends in the final “Départ.” So moving.
And so to the major work of the evening, Elgar’s Second Symphony, which has never enjoyed the popularity of his First. One reason is pretty obvious; it doesn’t have a main theme of the sort that opens and closes the First. Also it doesn’t end triumphantly, and people were expecting that sort of thing from Elgar. No, this is the work of an older man – perhaps even, by now, if not disillusioned, then chastened and far more experienced, and undoubtedly worried by the political situation that would shortly lead to World War I. The second movement is among Elgar’s most heartfelt creations, but throughout this long, important work there are contrasts and conundrums. These sometimes rapid changes of mood are important in a performance; judging the constant ebbing and flowing becomes the crucial task of the conductor. It is the success or failure of this which makes performances stand out. On record several have got it right. One may cite Boult, Andrew Davis, Barbirolli, Handley, and of course Sir Colin Davis, who performed the work memorably with the LSO relatively recently in 2010. Daniel Harding did well tonight – very well. His was a reading with plenty of vitality, but with sensitivity too; his tempi were generally slower than the composer’s own. This may have had a slightly dislocating effect in the first movement, which I must confess to being my least favourite of the symphony anyway, but elsewhere I found myself much in sympathy with his reading.
The slow movement was frequently exquisite, the third romped along brilliantly and the strange, mysterious last movement flowed as it should; the all-important ending was beautifully quiet and uneasy. What a shame some clot in the audience felt it necessary to jump in with applause long, long before Harding had lowered his baton. The silence which Harding obviously sought, and which should follow music of this intensity and meaning, was rudely destroyed.
I thought the LSO played magnificently. We all know this is a splendid orchestra with fine principals, but nevertheless performances can vary from excellent to stunning. Tonight it was stunning. They love playing for Harding, as well they should.