Stimulating Variety from the Early Twentieth Century – Finland, Germany and the USA

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Reger, Ives, Antheil:  Benjamin Appl  (baritone) BBC Philharmonic, John Storgårds (conductor), MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 27.4.2016 (RB)

Jean Sibelius: The Tempest, Overture (1925-26)
Max Reger: Hymnus der Liebe op. 136 (1914)
Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question (1908)
George Antheil:  Symphony no.4 1942

The BBC Phil concerts at MediaCity Salford take place first and foremost to provide material for broadcast on Radio 3. Primarily they fuel UK radio’s Afternoon on Three strand. They provide a refreshing change from the rutted pathway of mainstream concerts. Those 2 and a half hour afternoon concerts can be relied on to explore and challenge in much the same way that BBC’s Through The Night uses music recorded by Europe’s radio stations to jolt new life into the repertoire.

The last of these concerts I attended in December 2015 (review). I had seen this Finnish conductor (the BBCPO’s Principal Guest Conductor) in action at the Proms in 2014 (review). The MediaCity concert hall was packed – that makes about 300 people and the concert started at 2pm. The programme presented four works – one from each of the first four decades of the last century.

Sibelius’s Tempest dates from his last years as an active composer. Among his substantial works only Tapiola was to follow. The Prelude stands as a door opened onto an hour’s worth of music comprising 34 pieces. We were to hear only the 7 minute Prelude. Tapiola is pre-echoed several times in this compact essay in whirlwind and a storm-tossed ocean. As storm music it might be said to have its origins in the whirling super-heated gales of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini but the human element which is to the fore in the Tchaikovsky is not present here. At times Sibelius’s suffocating furies appear to suck the very oxygen out of every level of the sound spectrum. If you want a ‘what next’ then try another Scandinavian’s Tempest Prelude: the one by Swede, Gösta Nystroem. In all the Sibelius impresses without being endearing. Even Britten’s Grimes Storm has more humanity than this.

BBC New Generation Artist, baritone, Benjamin Appl, joined the orchestra to perform Hymnus der Liebe by Reger. This sets words by Ludwig Jacobowski (1868-1900). The poem is printed in the sung German and in translation in the free programme note; such a good service and the whole concert is free-entry. The Reger revels calmly in soulful late-romantic delicacy. This is not an operatic scena; It is philosophically intense and broods deeply. As I have said in another context: think in terms of “the backdrop of an ominous night sky with Gothic clouds afloat. This continuum is relieved by the uncoiling of slowly coaxed climaxes.” Appl’s voice had stern competition once or twice from the orchestra but his concentration and projection were unwaveringly communicative.

The Unanswered Question is one of Charles Ives’ best known pieces. It dates from 1908 but was revised in 1930-35. Ives paired it with Central Park in the Dark under the title Two Contemplations but each made its own way in the world and each is among Ives’ most famous compositions. The BBCPO’s playing was fully equal to this work’s subtle demands including silkily whispered strings, a separately conducted ensemble of four flutes to the far left of the stage and that trumpet played from the far right-hand side at the back of the top rank of audience seating. The tone of the trumpet was steady and ripely rounded; not a blemish in evidence. A nice sense of theatre was at work here.

George Antheil (1900-1959) was born in the USA at Trenton, New Jersey. If he has registered with you it will probably be because of: his memoirs ‘Bad Boy of Music’ (1945), his 1920s shock successes (Jazz Symphony and Ballet Mécanique, the latter including an aeroplane propeller) and his score for the Cary Grant-Frank Sinatra-Sophia Loren Peninsular War film, The Pride and the Passion (1957). He was a student of Bloch for a while but soon decamped to fashionable Paris where he moved among a louche artistic set. Returning to the USA he was signed up for music for Hollywood but continued to write concert music including a Violin Concerto premiered in Dallas and ultimately four more symphonies to add to those dating from his enfant terrible 1920s. The CPO label has done the symphonies proud if you have a mind to delve further (review review). In the 1950s there was to be an opera Volpone and a ballet Capital of the World.

Antheil’s was a war correspondent but there was time to write a Fourth Symphony as well as that autobiography. Of the Symphony he commented that it was “Written … during a period when the entire future of the world hung in the balance, its first movement undoubtedly reflects my tense and troubled state of mind while writing it: I had no actual program in mind; but every day, I was watching the news, from Stalingrad, from Africa, from the Pacific … the second movement is tragic – news of Lidice and the horrors of Poland had just come in – while the third; the Scherzo is more like a brutal joke of war. The fourth, written after the turn of the tide at Stalingrad and our landings in Morocco, heralds victory.”

Allowing for the earlier shock works the Fourth Symphony is the least neglected of the six symphonies. For years it gave Antheil a presence in the record catalogue having been recorded by Everest in London in the late 1950s. The LSO and Eugene Goossens did the honours for that pioneer recording.

In this very rare outing for the four movement Antheil work the hand of Shostakovich and specifically of the Seventh Symphony is evident. It’s rife with that composer’s tics and DNA strands but it works without impediment. No doubt the media circus around the Russian composer’s symphonies in the 1940s and the short-lived entente between the USSR and the Allies contributed to the picture but also to its eclipse when the world turned on its axis. A huge orchestra of about ninety crowded the studio’s massive sound-stage. This came complete with an array of six percussionists, plus gong, harp and orchestral piano. Antheil proves to be extremely inventive and his ideas are good even when dressed up in Soviet finery. The first movement makes play with a sort of grumbling Frère Jacques melody from the double-basses, a delicious flute solo, pawky bombastic humour and some deliciously romantic writing for the violins. Those violin pages reminded me of similar moments in William Alwyn’s First Symphony (1949). The second movement is no let-down even if there are some disorientating surprises such as an ‘Old Cantina’ episode, a deeply rustling ostinato from the cellos and a most moving passage for stratospheric violins that recalled Patrick Hadley’s The Trees So High. Its ostinato sported similar note-units from Sibelius’s first Lemminkainen Legend. Movement 3 is another essay in kinetic energy including more Hispanic pages, chugging strings and, at the close, a superbly calculated ‘farewell to arms’ from the horns who cough out sustained note-cells; strikingly well done. The finale is nothing if not uproarious, blatantly heroic and hugely melodramatic. It makes much of the orchestral piano and xylophone and of the woodwind shrieking high above the mêlée. More please.

I had never thought I would hear Antheil’s Symphony in the concert hall. There’s hope for us yet. Now how about some other rarities: Louis Glass’s glorious Fifth Symphony, Joseph Holbrooke’s de luxe impressionistic tone poem Queen Mab and Bax’s Fifth Symphony?

This concert was a live broadcast for BBC Radio 3 but will no doubt be repeated in part or in whole and can be heard again for a while on BBC IPlayer.

Rob Barnett

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