United Kingdom Prom 42: Stephan, Kelly, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams: Allan Clayton (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone); BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Manze, (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, London, 17.8.2014 (CS)
Rudi Stephan: Music for Orchestra (1912)
F.S. Kelly: Elegy for Strings, in memoriam Rupert Brooke
George Butterworth: Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad (orch. P. Brookes)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 3 (Pastoral)
Many of this year’s Promenade concerts have directly or indirectly commemorated the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, but this programme by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze, entitled ‘Lest We Forget’, was distinctive in reminding us that in addition to the well-known musical tributes, outpourings and memories of this terrible conflict, there are indeed many past voices of great promise and feeling whom have been seldom heard during the intervening years – and that these voices sing from various sides of the political and geographical divide.
In the years leading up to WW1, the German composer Rudi Stephan (b. 29 July 1887) was considered one of the foremost talents of his generation, but like so many other gifted young men, he was not to live to fulfil this creative potential: Stephan was killed by a Russian bullet to the brain, in the trenches at the Galician Front (now Ukraine), at the age of 28. Deepening the irony, Allied bombing during WW2 destroyed most of the composer’s remaining scores.
Although he had a penchant for ‘objective’ titles which indicate no programme or ‘subject’, Stephan’s late-Romantic idiom is vividly and deeply expressive, and demonstrates an impressive command of varied orchestral timbres. In the slow introduction of the 1912 Music for Orchestra, Andrew Manze and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra created a mysterious, brooding air, the dark melodic gestures of the low strings and solo bass clarinet (Simon Butterworth) merging and growing into a pensive cor anglais solo, beautifully played by James Horan. Manze sustained a piercing clarity, painting multifarious shadows and colours, in the more fully textured passages of the central section – the bright, insistent brass outbursts had a menacing quality – before leader Laura Samuel’s violin solo soared high above the restatement of the opening material. The foreboding mood of the close was tempered by gentle harp gestures; we could only lament what might have been.
The son of an Irish wool-broker, Thomas Kelly, and his Australian wife, Mary Anne (née Dick), Frederick Septimus Kelly was born a few years before Stephan, in Sydney in 1881. A talented musician and rower (he competed in the 1908 Olympic Games in London), Kelly joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve with his friend, the poet Rupert Brooke, and survived two injuries sustained at Gallipoli, before succumbing to a German machine gunner at Beaucourt-sur-l’Ancre during the last days of the battle of the Somme in November 1916. But not before he had composed his Elegy for Strings, dedicated to Brooke, which he is reputed to have begun at Gallipoli in 1915 as the poet lay dying nearby; the harp part was added a month before Kelly’s own death.
On several occasions during this BBC Proms season, I have been a little frustrated by the unhelpful RAH acoustic, finding the plumpness of texture of some orchestras’ large string sections rather heavy and ponderous. Here, though, Manze dared to strive for a delicate quietude, drawing astonishingly tender but always clear and translucent pianissimo playing from his string players.
With its rich, divided string lines, homophonic textures, parallel chords and an intense, lyrical violin solo above undulating triplet textures, Kelly’s score recalls the Vaughan Williams of the Tallis Fantasia and Lark Ascending; always there was a subdued restraint, but Manze conveyed the latent emotion pulsing beneath the surface reserve. Despite the prevailing stillness, the calm strings lines were sonorous and stirring, and the brief crescendos – the emergent fortes often immediately quelled – were more telling for their rarity and terseness
Baritone Roderick Williams’ highly persuasive account of George Butterworth’s ‘Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad’ – in an idiomatic orchestration by Phillip Brookes, fairly sparse, allowing the text to carry without undue strain or emphasis – took over effortlessly from the sweet, simplicity of the final bars of Kelly’s requiem for his poet friend.
After the lulling tranquillity of ‘Loveliest of Trees’, in which Williams demonstrated his self-possessed yet incredibly powerful ability to communicate the text, both literally – every single word was audible – and figuratively, the deceptive calm was swept aside by the knowing regret of ‘When I was one-and-twenty’. Although Housman’s text ostensibly speaks of the painful lessons of youthful love (‘The heart out of the bosom/ Was never given in vain;/ ‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty/ And sold for endless rue’), the broader implications of innocence betrayed and lost were painfully communicated by the focused line of Williams’ flexible, almost unbearably spry folk-like melody.
The pathos of ‘The lads in their hundreds’ was superbly crafted, Williams and Manze building cogently to the closing portrait of ‘The lads that will die in their glory and never be told’; this breath-stopping image was a perfect precursor of the rather brutal realities of the final song, ‘Is my team ploughing?’ in which Williams juxtaposed tentative questioning – ‘Is my team ploughing/ That I was used to drive/ And hear the harness jingle/ When I was man alive? – with the brusque animation of one who most go on living, ‘Ay, the horses trample,/ The harness jingles now;/ No change though you lie under/ The land you used to plough’.
Vaughan Williams’ Third Symphony was the sole work in the second half of the programme. Ideas for this symphony began to form during 1916, when the composer was in France with the Royal Army Medical Corp, and the work expresses both the pathos and beauty of the French landscape.
Manze skilfully controlled the tension between the seemingly predominant tranquillity and the sudden up-wellings of emotion which disturb the cool surface; despite the absence of dramatic contrasts of tempo, dynamics and motivic material, Manze found real drama in this heartfelt music, shaping the undulating motifs articulately, the limited compass of the melodic meanderings conveying a suppressed aching. The conductor allowed the motifs to freely evolve while retaining a secure and coherent overall form.
Every evening Vaughan Williams would drive his ambulance wagon to the top of the steep hill overlooking Ecoivres and it was there that he heard a trumpeter practising the last post, missing the octave and falling on the flat seventh, a poignant if un-intentioned emblem of the futility of war which was incorporated into the trumpet cadenza of the slow movement. Mark O’Keeffe emphasised the piquant harmonic resonances of his natural Eb trumpet, while first horn, David Flack, provided a composed prologue and epilogue to this portrait of the ineffectuality of conflict.
What Vaughan Williams saw at Flanders never left him; this was his ‘War Requiem’, deeply reflective and ‘pastoral’ only in the sense that it conveys a deeply contemplative state. Unhurried and spacious, subdued but eloquent, this was a deeply moving performance. Manze and the BBC SSO communicated a poignancy which was honest and direct. At the close, as Allan Clayton’s lyrical utterance – delivered from the organ gallery, and accompanied by Yann Ghiro’s whispering solo clarinet – faded forlornly, there were many in the RAH whose eyes were clouded with tears of remembrance and sadness.