John Powell’s A Prussian Requiem Marks the World War I Centenary

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Elgar, John Powell: Jennifer Pike (violin), Sol Gabetta (cello), Javier Camarena (tenor), Ashley Riches (baritone), Philharmonia Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra/José Serebrier (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 6.3.2016 (CS)

Vaughan WilliamsThe Lark Ascending
Elgar: Cello Concerto
John PowellA Prussian Requiem (world premiere)

On 4 August 2014, Jennifer Pike performed Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending at the service of remembrance for the 100th anniversary of World War One at Westminster Abbey.  This concert at the Royal Festival Hall, by the Philharmonia Orchestra under José Serebrier, also commemorated the First World War, and Pike’s sublime but unsentimental rendition of Vaughan Williams’ rhapsodic romance was an enthralling opener.

Adopting a fairly brisk tempo, Pike’s approach was refreshingly cool.  The opening solo was fluid yet crisp, and there was an undercurrent of urgency as the line strove ever higher.  Pike conjured the soaring effortlessness of the bird’s floating arcs – the stratospheric E-string summits were powerful and penetrating – but she also intimated the inner tension of muscle and skeleton, released perhaps by a wingbeat or flicker of feather.  The sheer beauty of sound was breath-taking; Pike employed only a slender vibrato, her phrasing was highly cultivated and nuanced, her intonation flawless.  The double-stopped passages had strength and warmth, conjuring an image of the lark confidently circling, surveying the earth below, before gently descending and settling.

The Philharmonia began quite languidly but soon absorbed the impetus created by the solo line and pressed onwards.  There were some lovely interchanges between violin and instrumentalists: undulating horn phrases took over seamlessly from the violin’s fading rocking motifs, the woodwind solos sang clearly.  The orchestral tone was full of dark colours which, together with the swells and surges within the texture, fore-grounded the crystalline incisive of the solo line.  Pike’s closing solo was wonderfully poised and still – the rapid string crossings seemed a slight of hand – and as the bird rose ever higher its elaborate song slipped ethereally into silence.

Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta was the soloist in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and she gave an intimate, heartfelt performance which eschewed romantic indulgence and strove for precision and subtlety.  At the opening of the first movement, Gabetta’s tone was not particularly intense, but the sound was clean and there was a lovely evenness across the registers.  She created a sustained lyrical line which interwove with the orchestral arguments.  There were moments where the latent passion spilled through the self-possession, as in the pizzicato chords of the recitative Lento: Gabetta pushed through these four spread chords with startling power, and produced a wonderfully rounded tone in the aching double-stopped lamenting of the cadenza, then immediately retreated into an almost cheekily fleet scherzo.

Here, the ensemble between soloist and orchestra came adrift at times, as Gabetta left Serebrier trailing behind, and in the lyrical orchestra passages there was an absence of impelling dynamism.  Indeed, I found some of Serebrier’s gestures puzzling.  Was it really necessary for the conductor to signal every climactic tutti chord or passage with a down-beat which started with the baton raised high above and behind his head, in the manner of a tennis player contemplating the ace he is about to deliver?

Gabetta took charge in the final Allegro; she knew exactly what she wanted and delivered it with technical prowess, though again the orchestra felt reined in at times.  This was a refined and persuasive performance, which probed the work’s melancholy but balanced it with dignity.  However, for me, one crucial ingredient seemed lacking: a sense of ‘freedom’ which would fully release the Concerto’s nuances and profundity.

The performances in the first half of the programme were characterised by an emotional restraint which proved highly affective.  John Powell’s Prussian Requiem, receiving its world premiere, seemed to adopt a diametrically opposed approach.

I must say that I was a little disconcerted by the biography of the composer which was printed in the programme: ‘John longed to be a violinist as a child.  Realising he wasn’t a good enough musician, he decided to become a composer.’  In fact, Powell has become a highly successful composer for television and film, creating scores for more than fifty feature films and receiving an Academy Award for Best Original Score for the 2010 American 3D computer-animated action-fantasy film, How to Train Your Dragon.

Powell’s cinematic experience was ever-apparent during A Prussian Requiem.  Certainly, the composer found a wealth of instrumental and vocal colours – imaginatively drawing on the large resources offered by the expanded Philharmonia Orchestra which included an array of percussion, and the 100-plus voices of the Philharmonia Chorus – to depict the ‘action’ presented in Michael Petry’s libretto.  But, if the score’s pictorial representation was effective, its ‘narrative structure’ was weak; the overall effect was one fragmented illustration rather than musico-dramatic development and coherence.  Moreover, Powell’s melodic idiom is quite declamatory, but the vocal lines had little sense of guiding direction.

Set the night before the start of the First World War, the Requiem presents the longing for glory of the war-mongering Prussian General, Helmuth von Moltke, whose refusal to accept the peace proposals which were offered to the Kaiser swept the continent into war.  Powell suggests that the work could be seen as ‘a requiem to the consequence of one man’s hubris upon the 20th century’.  Petry’s libretto places solos in which Moltke veers between confidence and doubt alongside choruses in which the people celebrate the General’s propaganda and nobly accept its terrible consequences.  The Kaiser’s arrival leads to a dramatic conflict between the two men; Moltke is ever more deluded, his reason clouded by his fears of lost glory.  Petry’s text aims for Auden-esque irony but falls some way short: in ‘My Reasoning’, Moltke rants, ‘The cock and the bulldog would form a vice/ to grind our bones/ to feed the bear.  No, there is no f***ing [sic] stopping!’

In the event, the relentless orchestral accompaniment makes it difficult to discern the text in any case, though the two soloists certainly did their best.  And Powell was fortunate to have tenor Javier Camarena singing the part of Motkle.  Only the third tenor in 70 years (after Luciano Pavarotti and Juan Diego Flórez) to have performed an encore at the Met (after performing ‘Si ritrovaria io giuro’ from La Cenerentola in 2014, the year in which he also hit 18 perfect high Cs with encores of ‘Ah! Mes amis quelle jour de fête’ from La fille du regiment at the Teatro Real in Madrid), Camarena had the heft and purity of tone to cut through and carry across an orchestral barrage that can best be described as ‘unrelieved’.  Despite their vocal strength, in places it seemed necessary for the soloists to almost ‘shout’.  Baritone Ashley Riches was a stentorian Kaiser, and coped admirably with the challenges presented by a vocal line that lay quite low in the register, buried within a complex accompaniment texture.

After what I had found to be a rather mediocre performance in the two concertos of the first half, Serebrier came into his own in the Requiem, skilfully guiding the players and singers through the complex rhythms and changes of time signature with precision and clarity.  He moved briskly from movement to movement, was attentive to the needs of the Chorus, and encouraged the instrumental solos to emerge from the dense textures.  There was much fine playing from the Philharmonia’s brass and horns, great dexterity from the percussion and the almost brutal, explosive interjections from the timpani generated dramatic tension and anxiety.

The Requiem closes with a ‘hymn of lost innocence’, ‘The Gift’, in which, after dreadful destruction, the youth of the world offer themselves up as a sacrifice to ‘the gods’.  Their submission, ‘Lord, we offer our lives/ for our god is on our side’ is intercut with text in Turkish, German and French, suggesting the failure and breakdown of language; and, the Chorus’s wordless ‘moaning’ gradually faded into nothingness.  Serebrier stood, arms aloft, like a sort of Prospero invoking his deities.  The conductor had done a sterling job, and he and the performers showed admirable commitment to the work.

Claire Seymour

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