United Kingdom Great Brits 2: Mats Bergström (electric guitar), Pete Wilson (bass guitar), Steve Barnard (drum kit), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Edwin Outwater (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 03.02.2017 (PCG)
Steve Martland – Crossing the Border (1991)
Graham Fitkin – Intimate Curve (2015)
David Bedford – Star’s End (1974)
When I was a young composer I was frequently enjoined to resist the temptation to provide any detailed exegesis or explanation for the music I was writing, which it was contended should be capable of standing on its own feet without the need for such ‘props’. This argument presumably derived from Stravinsky’s patently false insistence that music could of itself have no meaning outside the notes themselves. I disagreed with that advice then, and I still do. In the first place, forcing composers to confront the construction and the meaning of their own music helps them to concentrate on such matters in a manner which they might well otherwise avoid. In the second place, and even more importantly, it assists composers in their task of communicating with their audiences; and if composers are not seeking to communicate with listeners one wonders what they are doing in the business of composition at all.
These preliminary ruminations are prompted by the fact that the programme notes for this enterprising concert of modern British music were all supplied by the composers themselves, or their estates. And yet, in their different ways, none of them succeeded in adding much enlightenment. To do him justice, the late Steve Martland (1954-2013) said as much at the outset: “Music,” he stated, “does not easily lend itself to verbal description. However, a vague and general outline of the compositional aims of this piece is worth a shot if it’s of interest or help to the listener.” He then proceeded to give some quite technical descriptions of the layout for the string orchestra and the musical construction itself. By outlining the intellectual rigour of the canonic procedures employed, these summaries unfortunately drew attention to them in a way that served to emphasise the exact imitations of material that passed from one body of strings to another, giving the strong impression that they had simply been “cut-and-pasted” on a computer. And that would not be a fair conclusion. As the music progressed it gained a sense of onward propulsion and increasing excitement that progressively gripped the ear, like a Vivaldi concerto that was gradually getting out of hand. The baroque overtones were heightened in this performance by the fact that the string players (except of course the cellos) were standing throughout – a feat of stamina, quite apart from the strenuous nature of much of the elaborately-figured writing and contrapuntally organised textures, which commanded respect in its own right. The conductor Edwin Outwater did not have much to do apart from ensuring a steady and unwavering beat throughout the span of twenty-five minutes, but he also managed to generate plenty of excitement and passion as the music continued on its relentless way. The end, simply stopping in mid-air in the manner of so many minimalist scores, came as quite a shock – one felt that Martland and the players could have carried on for another ten minutes or more without turning a hair. There were also a few quieter passages to interrupt the progress of a predominantly loud score, rather like Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia heard in juxtaposition with Orff’s Carmina Burana, with some sections very closely imitating the latter.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Sir Thomas Beecham once famously remarked, “in upwards of fifty years of concert-giving before the public, it has seldom been my good fortune to find the programme correctly printed. Tonight is no exception to the rule, and therefore, with your kind permission, we will now play you the piece which you think you have just heard.” That was exactly the situation which confronted Edwin Outwater in the context of this concert, but the re-ordering of items (presumably intended to abbreviate the length of time it would have taken to re-set the stage) also had its positive merits if only because the string orchestra deployed by Martland would have had its impact considerably reduced if it has followed the exuberant use of the full romantic orchestra in Graham Fitkin’s Intimate Curve, a far from intimate piece of writing. Fitkin (b.1963) explained in his programme note that he had been asked to write a ‘concerto for orchestra’ highlighting individual sections before combining them into a whole, and he achieved this by the use of a sort of eccentric passacaglia technique over which various contrasted variations were presented. He achieved miracles of imaginative scoring along the way – I particularly enjoyed one section where flutes and clarinets in unison appeared to imitate the sounds of an ondes martenot or other such electronic instrument – and the rumbustious closing pages always seemed to find something new to say. The chortling of the bass clarinet like a persistent bullfrog raised a smile in a score which had plenty of humour; and the manner in which the pseudo-passacaglia theme emerged as a high-soaring lyrical line on the violins was most effective too. The audience was highly enthusiastic, and cheered the composer (who was in the audience) with every justification.
After the interval the temperature unfortunately dropped violently with the performance of David Bedford’s Star’s End, a work now over forty years old which has not worn well with the passing of the years. Mind you, the programme note, beginning with an irrelevant quotation from Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation in which the phrase “star’s end” appears, and continuing with a long and rambling rumination on the subject of entropy, provided little clue as to the composer’s intentions in writing what was presumably intended to be a programmatic score. It was apparently originally designed as a concerto for the composer’s friend Mike Oldfield, playing two electric guitars; here the soloist duties were parcelled out between two players, of whom Mats Bergström had surprisingly little to do and Pete Wilson hardly seemed over-stretched. There were two places in the opening section when the orchestra settled on to a series of repeated patterns which seemed to invite improvisations from the guitars, and indeed at these points Edwin Outwater appeared to be looking expectantly at his soloists before taking up the pulse again after a pause. This was, however, not a mistake; the recording of the work by Vernon Handley with Mike Oldfield as soloist has exactly the same sort of hiatus, as if something expected has failed to materialise. Presumably therefore this is what the composer wanted, but it sounds weird all the same and looked even odder in this performance. More troublesome is the fact that the two sections of the score (divided by a pause where original listeners would have expected to get up and turn the LP over) seemed to traverse the same or very similar material without any sense of contrast, except a slightly greater sense of onward momentum in the second movement where a fragmentary brass chorale from the first half assumed greater prominence.
Otherwise a great deal of the music was comprised of textural passages where specified instruments in the orchestra were directed to deliver set patterns of notes in free rhythm and at their own individual speed. This aleatoric technique, much in vogue in avant garde circles during the 1960s and 1970s, has its own drawbacks. Although there is a greater sense of harmonic complexity and tension deriving from the overlapping figurations, there is a commensurate loss of sheer power as the orchestral instruments no longer reinforce each other in the traditional manner. This is not such a problem in chamber music, but becomes serious in large scores like Star’s End, where the inability to rise in graduated terms to a climax seriously detracts from the programmatic intention of the music itself. Steve Barnard, swapping his seat as principal timpanist of the orchestra for a drum kit, managed to get quite a variety of sound from his basically limited spectrum; but since there were no other percussion instruments one felt the lack of tuned marimbas and vibraphones which might have been anticipated in a piece which presumably had the intention of conjuring up images of outer space. The presence of so much aleatoric music meant that the sound of the music was sometimes quite different from that on the Handley LP; but these differences, and the superb playing of the orchestra under the energetic Outwater (who was however reduced at times to simply giving cues for various improvisations) hardly seemed justification for resurrecting the work. There are quite a few better scores by Bedford which could have been substituted, such as his first symphony, which seems to have had a rather dismissive critical response but has much more sheer content and profile.
This was therefore a somewhat disappointing conclusion to a pair of interesting concerts which had brought before us some marvellous and nowadays rather neglected scores – the performance of Howard Skempton’s Lento in the first concert especially welcome – but nonetheless the marvellous playing by the BBC NOW amply compensated for the occasional misfires. Might we perhaps hope for a further series of concerts in the same vein for next season? There are plenty more wonderful scores out there which thoroughly deserve to be resurrected.
Paul Corfield Godfrey