CBSO Launch their Contribution to Our Shakespeare with ‘a Muse of Fire’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Walton, Strauss, Vaughan Williams and Verdi: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, CBSO Chorus, Edward Gardner (Conductor) Samuel West (Narrator) Symphony Hall, Birmingham 7.1.2016. (GR)

Richard Strauss: Macbeth Op. 23

Ralph Vaughan-Williams: Three Shakespeare Songs

Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth – Ballet Music

William Walton: Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario (arr. Christopher Palmer)

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death promises numerous celebratory festivities throughout the world. It is only proper that the region from which he originated and spent his final years should make a major contribution. Our Shakespeare is a collaboration between arts organisations and educational institutions of the English West Midlands; the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is a principal partner. Throughout the 2016 calendar year, the CBSO will feature many musical works that owe their origin to the Bard of Avon, details of which may be found on their website. Their tribute began in exuberant style on Jan 7th at Symphony Hall.

The evening fittingly started with a few words of introduction from Edward Gardner (as is his wont), the Principal Guest Conductor of the CBSO, charming the well-filled auditorium of this remarkable ‘Wooden O’ (O that we might see more of him!). He outlined the two approaches on Macbeth we were about to hear. Strauss’ tone poem, Op. 23, is notable for the themes that portray the two principal characters in ‘The Scottish Play’ and Gardner drew them out with some fine playing from the CBSO. And as the music of husband and wife came into conflict, there was only going to one winner, fulfilling the vow of Lady Macbeth to instil her husband upon ‘the golden round’ with ‘the valour of my tongue’, words from Act I Scene 5 that the composer thought so germane to his composition that he penned them onto his score. The piece anticipates Also sprach Zarathustra with one fanfare motive, while the brass of the CBSO, with the inclusion of a bass trumpet (Duncan Wilson) to bridge the trombones and trumpets, produced some typical Straussian sounds. But above all, although Gardner’s reading was ‘full of sound and fury’ by no means was it ‘signifying nothing’ or as Gardner had hinted ‘unremittingly dire’; I found its broad palette of colour incessantly appealing.

If Strauss omits the witches from his tone poem, Verdi embraces a generous helping of them in his opera Macbeth, and it is they who generally perform the Ballet Music from Act III (an obligatory theatrical inclusion for the Paris premier). Unfortunately many productions omit it, which is a shame judging by this rendition from Gardner and the CBSO. The conductor certainly conveyed the dance message of the score from the off, hip-swinging to the opening Allegro vivacissimo. It was a potent brew from the CBSO, not hard to imagine the incarnation of the evil constituents within Shakespeare’s cauldron. With controlled crescendi, smooth tempi changes and some quicksilver notes from the flute of Marie-Christine Zupancic as Hercate appears, it was exhilarating stuff.

Vaughan-Williams’ Three Shakespeare Songs were sandwiched between the two Macbeths. The CBSO Chorus (prepared on this occasion by Associate Conductor Julian Wilkins) presented a spatial element to the first, their ‘Ding-Dong’s resonating in Ariel’s Full Fathom Five. Another excerpt from The Tempest inspired the second, Prospero’s The Cloud-Capp’d Towers, the choir succinctly mastering the complex harmonies (at times up to eight-part); they were true to the verse being ‘…. such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’. Possibly the most tuneful of RVW’s trio was saved for last, a Fairy’s Over Hill, Over Dale, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the sopranos as delicate as the dewdrops that this follower of Titania was placing ‘in every cowslip’s ear’.

The Olivier film of Henry V had started as a piece of propaganda in 1943 and thankfully co-producer Dallas Bower convinced the actor that William Walton was the best man to provide the backing score. This combination, together with the later arrangement by Christopher Palmer, lives on in the concert hall and its enactment proved to be the ideal platform from which to launch CBSO’s commemorations to Shakespeare: vibrant music from the conductor and orchestra, patriotic delivery from the narrator. Gardner induced a sense of period colour and mysticism before sheer grandness took over in the Prologue, a royal sensation reinforced by trumpet fanfares (the trumpet section crisply led throughout by Jonathan Holland) and a flamboyant crescendo of the choir. The scene was set, as in the play by the commentator ‘Chorus’, actor Samuel West dramatically entering stage left for ‘O for a Muse of fire’. Elizabethan merry-making and enthusiastic drum rolls (the CBSO percussion section had a busy night) gave way for the bassoon and brass to introduce the corpulent Falstaff, jug in hand, At the Boar’s Head. But the flatulent jester is dead, his heart broken by the king, having been rebuffed by Hal’s ‘I know thee not, old man’ at the end of Henry IV Part Two, the solemn tone of West and the orchestral accompaniment knitting together impeccably. This eventually gives way to the jubilant familiar Waltonesque strains of Embarkation and a resolute ‘No king of England, if not king of France’ from West. The leave Pistol takes from Mistress Quickly in Touch her sweet lips and part seems an Interlude somewhat out of place to me, not being from Shakespearean text. By contrast Harfleur was dominated by the iconic ‘Once more into the breech’ and although no Olivier (who is?) West oozed inspiration and patriotism, fortified by the ranks of the CBSO willing to follow him. After Chorus describes the early skirmishes, Gardner brought a tension to Walton’s swirling dark music in The Night Watch as West portrayed a ‘little touch of Harry in the night’, the lowering of the hall lights and subsequent total extinguishment, adding to the atmosphere. West was at his best for the philosophical and prayer-like Upon the King, verse so appropriate on the eve of such an historical day in 1415, an execution worthy of the stage of Stratford’s Memorial Theatre or London’s Globe. Agincourt and the St Crispian address to the ‘rememberèd…. band of brothers’, the first ‘few’ to whom so much is owed, saw West begin in conversational mood, gradually building up the fervour in his voice to match the exciting loin-girdling score. Mid-battle King Henry has another word with his maker ‘to dispose the day…. how He pleaseth’ and as the battle raged Gardner seemed to squeeze that extra ounce from the strings (well by Zoë Beyers) fiercer than ever amid the Spirit–of-England theme on the brass, leading to an excruciating musical climax. Against the odds Henry is rewarded – West’s ‘The day is ours’ poignantly heard across the hushed auditorium before praising God. The choir gleefully rejoiced with the Agincourt Song, continuing this mood into At the French Court, where the Duke of Burgundy acts as mediator with more beautiful Shakespearian lines; this sentiment made more contextual by the orchestra’s pastoral back-drop that dissolves into a snatch of Cantaloube’s Baïlèro, hauntingly played by the oboe of Rainer Gibbons. In the Epilogue, the French King offers his daughter Kate to seal the truce. Now with something to genuinely celebrate, Gardner and the CBSO let it rip, revisiting earlier Walton themes. Chorus resumes his story-telling role with ‘Thus far…’ relating how for Henry V ‘Fortune made his sword’, the Agincourt Song and ‘Deo gratias Anglia’ wholeheartedly rounding it all off.

A five star send-off to Our Shakespeare.

Geoff Read

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