Honesty and Inventiveness in Beamish’s Commemoration of the Battle of Flodden

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Beamish, Bridge, R Struss, Pity of War: Shuna Scott Sendall (sop), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Joseph Swensen (conductor/director), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 24.10.2013 (SRT)

Britten:                  Suite on English Folk Tunes “A Time There Was”
Beamish:               Flodden (SCO Commission)
Bridge:                    Summer
R Strauss:             Metamorphosen

After hearing this concert, Pity of War seems like a fairly tenuous title.  Strauss’s Metamorphosen is an obvious link, as is Sally Beamish’s new work to commemorate the Battle of Flodden Field; but Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes is a hundred miles away in both theme and mood.  The only suggestive link was the gently keening cor anglais melody in the final movement, “Lord Melbourne”.  Elsewhere the mood was relentlessly upbeat; playful, even, with orchestral playing of unquenchable brightness.  Likewise, Bridge’s Summer was written in 1915 as an escape from the Great War that so horrified its composer.  It’s one of the classic turn-of-the-century pastoral idylls, evocative of a summer’s day in the English landscape, and an intentional turning away from the nightmare of the trenches, as if to recapture a spirit that seemed about to be overwhelmed.  It’s full of shimmering strings and beautiful winds, and it’s lovely in its own way, even if there’s not an awful lot to it.

Beamish’s Flodden, on the other hand, is a substantial new work to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the 1513 battle that saw the greatest single military loss of British life until the Battle of the Somme.  Its five movements – three songs plus two orchestral interludes – don’t try to depict the battle itself, though the angular, violent fourth movement comes closest. Instead Beamish was inspired by poems written about those left behind, and the mood of the suite is predominantly melancholic and full of regret.  Throughout, though, there is an interesting contrast between the words, which can be gentle and consolatory, and the orchestral accompaniment, often spiky and angry.  This contrast is helped by the very distinctive soprano voice of Shuna Scott Sendall.  She had an ability to cut through the orchestral texture like a knife and to catch the resonance of the hall very effectively.  Her singing was not always beautiful but was always interesting, especially the wordless, chromatic keening that begins and ends the work.  I especially liked their take on The Flowers of the Forest, a song of simple beauty set against some fairly spiky cadenzas in the orchestra, and the Dawn interlude that evoked the ominous morning of the battle, the burning and smoke suggested by the opacity of a melody that never quite takes shape.

I enjoyed Beamish’s work most of all in tonight’s programme for its inventiveness, its honesty and the commitment of its performers.  Metamorphosen was beautifully played but killed by a lamentably slow tempo.  The central section, where the music briefly finds something resembling a major key, had more energy and worked much better, but the outer sections sagged and wilted in a way that sucked all the life out of the piece, and not in a way that Strauss intended.

Simon Thompson