RSNO splendidly juxtaposes Errollyn Wallen’s Mighty River and Dvořák’s New World Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Errollyn Wallen, Wagner, Dvořák: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano) / James Lowe (conductor). Livestream from the RSNO Centre, Glasgow, 15.1.2021 (GT)

Errolyn Wallen (c) Azzurra Primavera

Errollyn Wallen Mighty River

WagnerWesendonck-Lieder, WWV 91 (orch. Henze)

Dvořák – Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 ‘From the New World’

Errollyn Wallen is a composer previously unknown to me, at least in the concert hall, however, she is an enormously gifted young woman who has produced an admirable catalogue of works in diverse genres in the last twenty years. This is the first occasion that her music has been performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. On the basis of this concert, it surely should not be the last.

In her interview prior to the livestream from the RSNO Centre, she wanted to evoke the flow of water to the sea, and to give full expression to the musicians by writing a piece full of solo parts for the orchestra, with many complicated passages, and presenting the vitality of water. Meeting the orchestra – and working with them throughout the week prior to the recording – was an overwhelming experience for her. Wallen was commissioned to write this piece – by the Rector and PCC of Holy Trinity Church, Clapham Common, and Rev John Wates (whose wife is a descendent of William Wilberforce) – to commemorate the Slavery Abolition Act. Interestingly, Holy Trinity Church hosted the first meetings of the abolitionists, and fittingly, Mighty River was premiered by the Philharmonia Orchestra in 2007 at Holy Trinity.

Wallen decided to quote ‘Amazing Grace’ with the tune opening her work sombrely on Christopher Gough’s horn, and the melody was picked up by the piccolo flute, then flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. The especial beauty of Timothy Orpen’s clarinet brought a melodious atmosphere prior to the strings joining in at a sprightly moving pace. Slowly solo passages emerged from muted trumpets, trombones, percussion, and harp, ever more so the momentum surged forward. Throughout, the composer uses quotations from spirituals of the American slaves interwoven into the fabric of the music. Wallen’s orchestral writing shows the influence of Bernstein and Walton; there are beautiful passages for the clarinets and bassoons conjuring up a colourful blend of orchestral harmony. Suddenly the music stopped, and we heard the ‘Amazing Grace’ harmony reprised on the horn accompanied by the drums and closing with a shimmering harmony on the violins.

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), RSNO and James Lowe (conductor)

Hans Werner Henze’s orchestration of the Wesendonck-Lieder is not often performed, although I recall the Scottish Chamber Orchestra performing it with the same singer that we heard in a glittering performance several years ago. Certainly, the instrumentation is more challenging, and nevertheless can be rewarding in the right conditions. The orchestration is in most satisfying in producing an illustration of Mathilde Wesendonck’s intimate poems, more so than for Felix Mottl’s scoring for large orchestra. Henze gives each wind instrument the opportunity for expression giving greater clarity to counterpoint than is possible with Wagner’s original piano accompaniment.

The opening of the first song ‘Der Engel’, was wondrous, and often magical in the orchestral harmonies, though Karen Cargill’s singing of the poem was not word distinct in portraying the angel in comforting humans in grief, although it was all very atmospheric.

In ‘Stehe still!’ Cargill was supported by lively, colourful woodwind, sounding resplendent – her singing was marvellously ardent in attempting to quell human desires, and the rising orchestral colours before the closing were superbly handled by the conductor James Lowe.

In ‘Im Triebhaus’, we heard glimpses from the Tristan und Isolde Act III Prelude, notably in the achingly beautiful love music on the cor anglais of Henry Clay. Henze provides very sensitive harmonies here bringing out all the romance of the text, and there was delightful articulation from the bassoon of Luis Eisen, and luscious playing from the harp of Pippa Tunnell. In the fourth song, ‘Schmerzen’, there were beautiful sonorities from the chamber ensemble, and Cargill was now clear and vivid in bringing out all the desolation and grief of Wagner’s music. In the final song, ‘Träume’ – written experimentally for the Act II love scene from Tristan und Isolde – there was again wonderful playing from the harp, soulful playing from the flute of Helen Brew, and some of the finest playing from the orchestra in this concert; often of breath-taking virtuosity and atmosphere.

Since his previous engagement as an Associate Conductor here with the RSNO, Lowe has accrued appointments in Finland and the USA, at the Vaasa Symphony Orchestra, and the Spokane Orchestra respectively. He has conducted extensively worldwide and plays an important role as an educator and teacher of conducting. In his interview, the conductor said that the ‘New World’ Symphony evokes in his mind Dvořák’s homesickness and nostalgia for the far-off land of his birth. Certainly, it fits the bill as one of the most popular romantic works, although not perhaps his finest symphonic work. Of course, rather than specifically citing American Indian and African American spirituals, Dvořák uses the pentatonic scales of the harmonies in allowing a richer palate in his orchestration. This is splendidly appropriate when linked to Errollyn Warren’s opening work.

The opening movement, Adagio – Allegro molto, was gloriously introduced on the horns, oboes, and timpani, and there was a particularly beautiful passage from Helen Brew on flute accompanied by pianissimo strings. Throughout Lowe brought out vitally impassioned playing from his musicians, handling the two main juxtaposed themes to allow the first nostalgic idea to triumph. In the Largo, the trombones were magnificent, and there was an especially fine passage from Helen Clay’s cor anglais leading to some heartfelt playing from the orchestra invoking darkness to descend. The Scherzo was sparkling from the woodwind, and a brisk theme from the brass section, perhaps of a Bohemian village dance in the central Trio section (although the composer said its origin was a Pau-Puk-Keewis’s Indian dance). In the Finale, Allegro con fuoco, again the brass was glorious, with the trumpets fortissimo pre-empting a joyous culmination. Rather comically we hear the melody of the ‘Three Blind Mice’ nursery rhyme picked up by the orchestra sections. The conductor managed expertly the themes of the previous movements which appear and blend with each other, and at last, the triumphant climax of the heroic theme. This was a fine performance from James Lowe, hopefully, we will see and hear more of him in future seasons.

Gregor Tassie

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