Gritty Bax and Lush Harty at British Music Society Anniversary Concert

23/06/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Carwithen, Hurd, Harty, Alwyn, Bridge, Bax: Kirstin Sharpin (soprano), Ealing Symphony Orchestra / John Gibbons (conductor). British Music Society 40th Anniversary Concert, St John’s Smith Square, London, 22.6.2019. (RBa)

Doreen Carwithen – Overture Bishop Rock
Michael Hurd Dance Diversions
Hamilton Harty Ode to a Nightingale
William Alwyn Nemesis (Odd Man Out)
Frank Bridge An Irish melody
Arnold Bax – Symphony No.1

Quite apart from the obvious – this is after all a British Music Society event – this programme had some more subliminal connections. Carwithen was William Alwyn’s second wife. A very early BMS journal celebrated Harty as pioneering conductor of the Walton First Symphony at a time when his credit as a composer stood at close to nil. There were earlier exceptions but a spatter of Chandos LPs that gave Harty’s music including Ode to a Nightingale front-of-house time. As for Michael Hurd, music writer and composer, I only knew of him because of his tantalising mid-sixties book and later Radio 3 broadcasts about Rutland Boughton. His bequest to the BMS has already paid dividends in CDs issued, and the recording of his own music. He is remembered in this concert through the Dance Diversions. Bridge’s music did well in the 1970s and 1980s courtesy of the Pearl label. The BMS issued at least one Bridge piece on cassette.

Only Bax does not quite fit. There have been just a handful of BMS products that have centred on this composer. In the early 1970s, the first two symphonies were recorded by Lyrita with sponsorship from Ken Russell. Strangely, that coincided with the sputtering out of the Bax Society, active in newsletter form from the late 1960s to about 1973. Bax’s First Symphony, a work both bitterly emphatic and achingly emotive, ended this concert and was the evening’s most substantial work. The island of Ireland also provided a theme. There were Bridge’s Irish Legend and Harty’s Ode; and Alwyn’s Nemesis from the 1947 film Odd Man Out had an Irish gunman as doomed hero-anti-hero. Bax’s Irish sympathies endured and ran deep.

Right from the start, Carwithen’s Overture Bishop Rock is heady with no-holds-barred swashbuckling atmosphere and a dash of poetry. This prime piece of romantic sea music included Peter Nall’s superb violin solo. I should add that John Gibbons split the orchestra strings: violins were to his left, violas to his right.

The 1972 Dance Diversions by Michael Hurd (1928-2006) were next on. The title implies desiccation but these five ripe little pieces sounded to me like an affectionate ‘style book’: a book drawing on the dance characters of Malcolm Arnold, Vaughan Williams, Binge and German. That last dance was perhaps an example of the ‘puppet-master’ himself (Hurd) stepping into the glare of the footlights with his own take on the subject. All gentle and affectionate, it did not feel as if Hurd was lampooning his models. What was that about praise and flattery?

Hamilton Harty (1879-1941) wrote Ode to a Nightingale in 1907 for his wife, the soprano Agnes Nicholls. Here, Kirstin Sharpin stepped in and learnt the piece in 48 hours after illness had laid low the original soprano Helen Dix. Sharpin was nothing short of superb. She has a grand operatic manner and technique, steady note emission, and micrometer attention to vital dynamics. Very decent enunciation of Keats’s words also allowed her to shape them to reflect their meaning. This was an intelligent rather than a merely beauty-soaked account. The music, all 24 continuous minutes of it, was out of the same genre as Bantock’s song-cycles and Holst’s Mystic Trumpeter (Whitman words that Harty also set) but with a choppy superbly volatile Tchaikovskian accent. This was utterly moving, and it showed that the recently late Heather Harper (who recorded the piece for Chandos with Bryden Thomson) was not a one-off. I will remember Sharpin’s way with this piece for a long time nor ever forget her explosive ‘singest of summer in full-throated ease’. Not a foot put wrong.

William Alwyn’s Nemesis (Odd Man Out) was again introduced by the conductor. He pointed out that this section of the film score was written before the film sequence it illustrates, and talked of film noir. Noir this music is, in its remorselessly tightening tension, instinct with the excoriating tragedy to which it also rises. That said, the final section (after the gunman and his lover succumb to the hail of police bullets) is gentle, exhausted and lulling. Along the way, Alwyn several times unleashes one of his distant and yearning themes for the violins. This gained fullest expression in his First Symphony composed two years after the film.

An Irish melody (1908) by Frank Bridge (1879-1941) is a piece for strings. It comes from the same lode as Cherry Ripe, Salley in our Alley and Sir Roger de Coverle, the latter famously recorded by Britten for Decca. Its masterly and seemingly endlessly inventive ways elevate the Londonderry Air through dissection and harmonic spice. It is the more engaging for that constant tense element. The Air is given in full only in the last minutes but then quietly and with subtlety.

Arnold Bax’s First Symphony ended the concert in what was a rare and very welcome performance. The Ealing Orchestra’s resources were at full stretch, and the composer’s wishes for a big orchestra (two harps, heckelphone, gong, cymbals and most of the family of flutes) were honoured. I noticed one of the flautists not mere doubling but tripling with piccolo and two registers of flute. Last, and for me first, time I heard this live was in the early 2000s in Manchester with Vernon Handley conducting. Gibbons, now very much at ease with the orchestra he has conducted for quite a few years, presented this three-movement work in a pitilessly etched and stirred sharp focus. Scar tissue is very much in evidence; Bax does nothing to civilise or chamfer the cutting edges. Several times you hear the influence of John Ireland, the work’s dedicatee. Also moments, passing moments, sounded as if they might have escaped from Mars in Holst’s The Planets and once, looking forward, the dances of the spirits from his The Perfect Fool. This is not a work or a performance of foolery. While I wonder about John Gibbons’s parallels, for this work, with Bax and Bax’s feelings (lying with the rebels) for Irish republican nationalism in 1916, this work certainly spoke of conflict, brutal and exciting. It began life as a piano sonata that had grown too big for its boots. Occasionally the music echoes Mussorgsky: Bax’s experiences of Russia and the Diaghilev ballets were not far distant in 1920.

The first two movements were predominantly savage, or extolled drained emotions after savagery. Towards the end of the first movement, Bax repines and unleashes one of those melodies, carried superbly by the flute and other woodwind, that would melt the most obdurate of hearts. When Bax hits on a good tune, as he does in the Second Symphony, in the First Quartet and the Piano Quintet, it is a wonder. In this performance, no corners were softened and no emotional sinew slackened. The finale keeps up the savagery but its aspect here is where the barbarian host lead the subjugated and their captured splendours in gaudy victory through the streets. Bax wrote another piece called Rosc-Catha, and this finale steps bloodied from the same territory.

It was a good night for all sections but the French horns, from which my seat gave a closer aural perspective, were well up to Bax’s demands, whether they are front and centre or when they play figuration which is normally lost in the melee.

Gibbons introduced each piece in a relaxed, accessible manner. I rather liked his reminiscences about how his Cambridge thesis (The influence of Scriabin and Frank Bridge) was greeted, as well as the use of a pedal bass among the trombones in Bax’s First Symphony and how that was received by his early music tutor.

Sadly, the concert was quite lightly attended. Pity, because the programme was generous with tense inspiration and in duration. The BMS can take pleasure in what was heard. It chose well with assistance from Revolution Arts and no doubt from John Gibbons, who with his orchestra had a very good evening indeed… and so did we.

Rob Barnett

For more about the British Music Society click here.

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