PROM 72: Striking Celebration of English Music from Vaughan Williams to Birtwistle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 72 –  Vaughan Williams, Birtwistle, Walton: Lise Berthaud (viola), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 10.9.2014 (CS)

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’
Sir Harrison Birtwistle: Exody for orchestra (1997)
Walton: Viola Concerto
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.4 in F minor

The term ‘English Music’ typically brings to mind the responses of early twentieth-century composers in the native landscape, both literal landscapes of the pastoral tradition and ‘landscapes of the mind’ – that is, spiritual states and emotions – which have come to be associated with a ‘national identity’.  Indeed, Ralph Vaughan Williams once commented that, ‘The art of music above all arts is the expression of the soul of the nation’.

In the year in which we commemorate the centenary of the commencement of WWI, English music has not surprisingly featured prominently in the Proms’ programming; but the states of mind and modes of expression have varied greatly, from the grand religiosity of Elgar’s The Kingdom to the poignant nostalgia of Gurney’s War Elegy, from the shattering sorrow of Britten’s War Requiem to the passion and power of Walton’s First Symphony.  Such diversity and contrast was similarly present in this striking performance by Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The concert opened with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ – suggesting perhaps that an evening of folk-derived wistfulness was in store – but it swiftly moved onto more troubled ground, offering us the unsettling perspectives of Birtwistle, Walton and Vaughan Williams’ own dissonant, shifting Fourth Symphony.

In fact, in Litton’s hands even Vaughan Williams’ orchestral miniature was blanched of whimsy and mawkishness.  The opening was quietly restrained, the shapely arabesques of the principal flute (Daniel Pailthorpe) gentle and relaxed.  Introducing the folk melody, the violas were supple and light above the tender strumming of the harp, as Litton encouraged flowing forward movement and discouraged any wallowing in bucolic sentiment.

However, these four minutes of charm were merely a brief drawing of breath before the main, stamina-demanding work of the first half: Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s orchestral Exody.  This complex, restless roving through multifarious forms and colours was first heard at the Proms in 1998, performed by Daniel Baremboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who had shortly before given the premiere of the work.  Subtitled ’23:59:59’, the threshold of midnight, the score’s incessant unfolding of fresh timbres and new musical ideas suggests both the rich potential and terror of change.

Birtwistle has explained that the title is derived from the Greek exodía, which implies both a way out and a way in, and that the piece ‘is a celebration of leaving in general and makes a journey into a labyrinth and out again’.  Certainly the challenges presented are considerable, and Litton’s notable command of the ever-changing pulses and jarring rhythmic shifts did much to engage and sustain the listeners’ attention, despite the unfamiliar and constantly diverging paths pursued.  There was some superb, confident leading from guest leader Natalie Chee, inspiring vivid playing from the BBC SO as they sought their way through and out of Birtwistle’s imposing warren.

The cavernous spans of register – flautists blow down narrow pitch pipes to create stratospheric summits while two muted tubas rumble far beneath; dizzying string harmonics waft above dark percussive booms  – gaped to reveal an airy space between as Litton manipulated the textures with clarity of vision.  The over-riding impression was of time standing still, as if all the varied elements of the kaleidoscopic sound-scape that we had experienced in linear form in fact existed simultaneously.  The result was not chaos but a sense of limitless exploration.

After the interval, French violist Lise Berthaud, a BBC New Generation artist, was the soloist in Walton’s Viola Concerto. The concerto is notoriously demanding: it was composed for Lionel Tertis who, upon receiving the score declared it impossible and sent it back to the composer.  Having been rejected by an Englishman (although Tertis did subsequently revise his judgement and went on became a renowned proponent of the work) it was in fact performed by a German, the composer and violist Paul Hindemith, receiving its premiere at the Proms in October 1929.

Berthaud, who despite suggesting that a busy and varied concert repertoire of late had not prevented her from ‘[saving] time to be in touch with the Walton’, did not perform the work from memory and initially she did not seem entirely comfortable or on top of all of the technical challenges.  In the opening Andante comodo there were some lapses of intonation and, while this first movement is somewhat restrained in expression, the viola’s long, unwinding first melody did not project with sufficient confidence.  Litton conjured dark orchestral timbres, and accompanying gestures from trombone, bassoon, harp and pizzicato strings were appropriately pungent.

The mercurial scherzo, Vivo, con molto preciso, found Berthaud more at home, and her playing was agile but still expressive; here she seemed better able to argue the soloist’s case against the barrage summoned by Litton from the BBC SO, and the agitated episodes were precisely articulated.  There was lyricism and power too in the double-stopped 6ths of the Allegro moderato second subject and passionate playing from the LSO in the orchestral tuttis before the bitter-sweet sadness of the quiet close.

In a steady and serious performance of Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony, Litton made much of the musical details, creating an unsettled edginess.  That’s not to suggest that, for example, the Allegro’s intense fortissimo opening and surging string second subject or the repeated savage stabbings at the dissonant conclusion to the Finale were not ominous, penetrating and violent.  But, it was the discerning way in which details were articulated that made this such an engaging performance.  Thus, the pronounced, stepwise cello and double bass pizzicati at the start of the second movement pinpointed the mood of eerie disquiet.  Instrumental colours were astutely differentiated: the songful cello and bass counterpoint in the first movement rang eloquently, while the low flute and muted trombone pairing at the close of the Andante moderato was chillingly unnerving.  The rhythmic dialogues of the Scherzo were crisp and animated, while the Finale’s fugal epilogue escalated with unstoppable ferocity.

Claire Seymour

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