BBC NOW Marks Battle of the Somme Centenary with Music from that Era

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Delius, Butterworth, Jacob, Howells, Roussel, Francis Purcell Warren: Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Mark Stone (baritone), Philip Dukes (viola), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales cond. Adrian Partington (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 1.7.2016 (PCG)

George Butterworth – A Shropshire Lad (1913)
Gordon Jacob – Symphony No 1 (1928-9): 2nd movement
Herbert Howells – Elegy (1917)
Albert Roussel – Pour une fête de printemps (1920)
Francis Purcell Warren – Ave verum (1912)
Frederick Delius – Requiem (1914)

This concert, given on the centenary of the disastrous opening day of the Battle of the Somme, was a late addition to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ programme for the 2015/16 season, and as it happened became the final performance of that season. Those listening to the live broadcast on Radio 3 will however have been somewhat misled by the listing in Radio Times, since what we actually heard differed in three principal respects from the advertised programme.

In the first place, although Radio Times advised us that we were to hear Christopher Maltman in Butterworth’s songs from A Shropshire lad. What in fact we heard was the same composer’s orchestral rhapsody with the same title (as originally advertised). In the past I have complained about the BBC’s failure to separate the violins to left and right of the conductor in music which really demands this (such as Mahler symphonies), but at the same time I recognise that the increased weight of string tone when all the violins are gathered together on the left can be a valuable resource in its own right. Here, for the first time in my experience with this orchestra, this was done in music that did not presume this arrangement; and the results were not always ideal, since the woodwind continued to project their lines with greater volume than was really necessary when they did not have to contend with the massed violins in front of them.

Adrian Partington began the music slowly, but the clarinets tended to dominate the disembodied tone of the strings; and the trumpet quotation of the line “Loveliest of trees” from the original song cycle at the climax tended to be smothered by the counterpoint which surrounded it. In places too Partington whipped up the excitement too far, although the sense of desolation at the end was sensitively controlled. The piece was written of course three years before the Somme where Butterworth met his untimely end, but the impression of impending doom is inextricably linked to the music, as indeed it is to Housman’s poetry which inspired it.

The second alteration to the published programme came with Gordon Jacob’s First Symphony, when, instead of the whole work as advertised, we were given just the second movement, a slow lament in the form of a funeral march in a piece dedicated to the memory of the composer’s brother who was killed on the Somme. This mirrored the only performance given in Jacob’s lifetime, when he conducted this solitary movement at a Three Choirs Festival in 1934; but it would have been pleasant to hear it in context. The opening startled me, with a phrase which closely resembled the opening of my own children’s opera The Children of Lyr, but it progressed quite differently and I only mention it in order to exculpate myself from any charge of imitation since I had never heard the work before this performance. Somewhat later on one of Jacob’s phrases seemed in its turn to deliberately echo Butterworth, but the steady progress of the threnody was most effective and I was sorry when the movement came to an end since there seemed to be more scope for development of the thematic material.

The Howells Elegy was also written as a tribute to a friend – in this case Francis Purcell Warren – killed on the Somme. It is well-known that Howells was inspired to take up composition as a result of hearing the first performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis in 1910, and the influence of that work is palpable in his Elegy with its similar scoring for solo string quartet and string orchestra, with the addition here of a viola solo plangently played by Philip Dukes. But the resemblances extend beyond this, both in the modal nature of the melodic lines that Howells supplies and in the saturated string textures which he seeks to achieve. The results are extraordinarily beautiful, although one might have welcomed a greater separation of the string quartet from the body of the orchestra in order to clarify the richness of the elaborate counterpoint. How English composers of this era loved the sound of the viola! In an introduction to the performance Philip Dukes described the work as a “little gem.” It is indeed, and the results greatly moved the near-capacity audience.

Roussel’s Pour une fête de printemps seemed rather out of place in this company; Roussel had served in the First World War, but this piece was a rather upbeat conclusion to the first half of the concert. The opening bitonal juxtaposition of a chord of A major over D sharp major came as quite a shock, and much of the remaining material seemed to consist of an elaboration on Golaud’s theme from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, with its meandering up-and-down motion treated to a series of dance-like variations. These seemed however to speed up and slow down in a rather arbitrary fashion, and Partington’s attempts to smooth over these juxtapositions sometimes anticipated the indications in the score, with results which seemed oddly dispirited.

After the interval the orchestra was joined by the chorus for the unaccompanied setting of the Ave verum corpus written in his teenage years by Francis Purcell Warren in whose memory Howells had composed his Elegy. Peter Reynolds informed us in his programme note that the composer had been noted by Parry as “likely to make a personal mark,” but this was not immediately evident here in what seemed like a proficient student exercise without any very individual stamp. But since there appear to be no scores by Warren for orchestral forces (his works before his death were entirely for chorus or chamber ensembles) this was a worthwhile inclusion in a programme to commemorate the slaughter which claimed the composer’s life.

Delius’s Requiem was written, according to the date on the score, in 1914 and he appears to have continued to work on it up to 1916 when it was dedicated to “artists fallen in the War,” although it was not apparently his original intention to provide such a memorial when he began to write the score. Although the composer himself prized the music highly, it was treated with disdain by such Delius enthusiasts and promoters as Eric Fenby and Sir Thomas Beecham, and it was not until the 1960s that it began to establish itself – and even then very irregularly. Part of the reason lay in Delius’s trenchantly atheist text adapted from the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes and the writings of Nietzsche, which clearly revolted the Catholic Fenby. And part also clearly lies in Delius’s extravagant scoring for an orchestra hardly any smaller than Holst’s massive demands in his near-contemporaneous Planets, and even excelling that orchestra in his use of six horns plus a further four offstage in the closing bars (where he fails to allow time for his players to move behind the scenes) and a further three trumpets backstage in addition to the three in the orchestra. Paul Guinery, in a spoken introduction to the score in interview with Nicola Haywood Thomas, under-stated his description of Delius’s demands by referring to a mere “three horns” – and “triple woodwind” where quadruple forces include a request for a “sarrusophone in C” which was here taken on a double bassoon (an alternative Delius does suggest in the score).

Delius’s writing for the baritone soloist in particular is also a problem, grossly over-optimistic in his requirement for the singer to project over heavily scored orchestration (and here the third alteration to the programme, the substitution of the lyrical Mark Stone for the originally announced Christopher Maltman, may have been a factor). Delius clearly expected a large amateur chorus to deal with his dramatic and ecstatic writing, often in eight parts; and although the BBC National Chorus of Wales managed to make themselves heard even at climaxes, an even greater volume of tone might have been welcome in places. They were not necessarily assisted by the decision to sing the work in German; Delius’s score, originally published in Germany by Universal Edition, gives priority to the German text over the English translation, but in the closing bars the opening consonants of a word like “Frühling” does not give the sheer lift and impact to the voices that “Springtime” does. I speculated in conversations during the interval that this may well indeed have been the first ever performance to use Delius’s original German text; nobody to whom I spoke was able to claim knowledge of a previous one.

This made it all the more reprehensible that the BBC’s programme failed to provide the text or any translation of the words, with the result that most of the audience will have been left in total ignorance of the meaning of what was being delivered. I have in the past complained about this in the small-size programmes for the BBC Hoddinott Hall concerts (they do provide such texts for their performances in St David’s Hall). If they are unable to accommodate such essential information in the existing format for their programmes, they should at least consider furnishing it in additional handouts. As it was, the reception of the work by the audience was respectful and puzzled rather than the more handsomely enthusiastic one the performance deserved. Balances between sections were perhaps not ideal – Delius largely at fault here – and Elizabeth Watts sounded taxed by the composer’s cruel demand for an entry on high B at the end; but Adrian Partington paced the score well, and rightly refused to allow himself to be hurried during the atmospheric opening.

May I conclude by thanking the BBC in Wales for continuing to provide such a wide-ranging and stimulating series of concerts during the 1915-16 season (there are some even more tantalising programmes promised for next year), and note with delight what appears to be the growing size of audiences for these performances in Cardiff. Those listening to the concerts, or their relays, in the comfort of their own homes, would find even greater enjoyment in being present in the hall during such frequently superlative music-making. The orchestra continues to display high standards which establish them as one of the top-ranking ensembles in Britain.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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