A trio of symphonies from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2021 [3] – Gipps, Adès, Brahms: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 5.8.2021. (CS)

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Ruth Gipps – Symphony No.2 in B major
Thomas AdèsThe Exterminating Angel Symphony (London premiere)
Johannes Brahms – Symphony No.3 in F major Op.90

It sometimes feels as if 2020 was not just a ‘lost’ year in terms of unfulfilled plans and opportunities, but a year that has altogether vanished from the annals of time.  Centenary festivals, football tournaments, Olympic Games and suchlike slipped their moorings, and some have resurfaced in 2021, sometimes retaining their ‘2020’ designation.  In such fashion, performances of some of the twenty works which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its first ever concert, in September 1920, had to be put on hold, including the premiere of Thomas Adès first ‘symphony’, The Exterminating Angel Symphony.  Moreover, the work was 1due to be heard for the first time in Birmingham in June this year, but Covid threw yet another spanner in the works and the premiere was once again delayed until the evening before this first London performance at the BBC Proms.

The work draws upon music from Adès’ third opera The Exterminating Angel which premiered at the 2016 Salzburg Festival and was heard at Covent Garden the following year.  The opera is based upon Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film El ángel exterminador, in which a bunch of egocentric aristocrats find themselves in a surreal nightmare, inexplicably unable to leave the elegant dining room in which they have gathered for a lavish post-opera dinner party.  Adès’ re-working feels more ‘suite’ than ‘symphony’.  The first three movements correspond to discrete moments in the opera: in ‘Entrances’ the opera-goers arrive for dinner; the obsessive rhythms of the following ‘March’ depict their first night under the spell of the eponymous angel; ‘Berceuse’ draws on the duet between the doomed lovers Beatriz and Eduardo, ‘Fold your body into mine / Hide yourself within its hand’.  Only the concluding ‘Waltzes’ assimilates music from across the score – Adès has described the composition of the movement as – ‘joining together the bits of a broken porcelain object’ – and perhaps here the music communicates something of the film’s obsessive repetitions that convey the bourgeoisie’s lack of ‘will’ – that is, the exterminating angel; a fatal, compulsive ennui that Adès’ opera mirrors and confirms.  Indeed, in an interview before the opera’s premiere, the composer commented on the ‘seductiveness’ of the waltz: “I often feel that the waltzes by Johann Strauss are saying, ‘why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside’.  So, in the context of this opera the waltz becomes very dangerous, potentially fatal.”

The CBSO and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The overwhelming stasis of this tragic languor seemed less impactful in the symphony, but the deftness, wit and expressive precision of the score are characteristically impressive.  ‘Entrances’ (a neat double entendre) lurched lopsidedly, punchy and perverse, and Mirta Gražinytė-Tyla urged muscular rhythmic stumbles – simultaneously comic and foreboding – from the CBSO.  After the disorientating climax, the combination of low held brass, high strings and a strange pulsating effect created a misty, sleepy ‘otherness’ evoking the guests’ entrancement.  The percussive tattoo of ‘Marches’ was relentless, and the tutti forces seemed to be burdened with a monstrous weight, compelled to make a huge effort to resist the tense triplet quickstep.  Paradoxically, both forces ‘went nowhere’, and blew themselves out in a roar towards the trembling fff climax.  Horn murmurs and chromatic sighs evoked the lovers’ suicidal despair, yet even this wish for death remained unfulfilled, stymied by the ominous tightening of the orchestra’s contrapuntal knots.  Ravel seemed to meet Stravinsky in the final ‘Waltzes’, the orchestration bitter, the melodic lyricism and rhythmic lilt mocking.  As the dances wound around and around there was a sense not so much of fragmentation but of an unravelling, and the mood of the close was strange and disconcerting.  Overall, though, Adès’ symphony seemed more cerebral than surreal, keeping the listener at a cool distance rather than embracing them with a bewildering aura of enchantment.

Thomas Adès’s Brahms for baritone and orchestra sets Alfred Brendel’s 1998 poem ‘Brahms II’, which describes the nightly visits of Johannes Brahms’s ghost to the music room of a house: after the ghost’s nocturnal piano-playing has woken the children and disturbed the piano’s tuning, the spectre sorrowfully departs.  Adès’s score skilfully incorporates allusion to several works by Brahms, but if the latter’s own Third Symphony is similarly allusive – Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann and Wagner are among those whose music is referenced – but there is nothing supernatural about it, as Gražinytė-Tyla made clear in a brisk, sunny and very ‘human’ performance of the Symphony.  Composed in Wiesbaden in the Rhineland, in the summer of 1883, the easy momentum and relaxed lyricism of the Third Symphony might seem to owe something to the view of the Rhine that the fifty-year-old Brahms’s summer house afforded him, and Gražinytė-Tyla’s tempos created unwavering forward momentum and a sense of calm assurance.  The opening was vigorous, though: the unusual harmonic progression that launches the work was dynamic and thrusting, as Gražinytė-Tyla conjured strength and speed, her arms swirling figures-of-eight, as gestures launched by muscular drives from the elbow and diagonal sweeps pushed the music persuasively forward.

Thereafter the tenor quietened, but if the dynamics were restrained there was no loss of detail, and melodies sang ever sweet and sleek.  The themes played by the clarinet, horns, cellos and others abounded with simplicity and sincerity, and Gražinytė-Tyla didn’t overload the music with interpretative detail or rubatos.  The final Allegro – un poco sostenuto began more dramatically with trombones and bassoons conveying a sombre note, but the tension between major and minor modes never developed into anything more than a light skirmish, and the close was warm and quiet.  Clara Schumann was effusive in her praise of this Symphony, writing to Brahms, ‘What a work!  What a poem!  What a harmonious mood pervades the whole! … From start to finish one is wrapped about with the mysterious charm of the woods and forests.’  Charming this performance certainly was, though at times it was a little lacking in presence and a stamp of individualism.

More interesting was the work which opening the programme, Ruth Gipps’ Second Symphony, here receiving its first Proms performance, 75 years after the CBSO – in which Gipps occupied both the oboist’s seat and, occasionally, the conductor’s podium – gave the premiere of the work.  I reviewed Gipps’ programmatic one-movement work – more tone poem than symphony, perhaps – in July last year (the disc, a reissue by the Musical Concepts label, also includes music by Butterworth and Arnold) and found its musical imagery and narrative confident and engaging.  Here, Gražinytė-Tyla captured the expansiveness of the opening – which depicts the contentment of Gipps’ own personal and musical life prior to World War Two – and whipped up the tension with snappy, angular wrist gestures, as that war approached and the fierce march carried her beloved husband Robert off to the battlefields.  There was a lovely fluidity to the episodes expressing the unsettled war years before, with a gentle, tiny beat, Gražinytė-Tyla quietened the tutti and summoned a note of introspection and sadness from the muted strings.  Another convincing shift of gear pushed forward once more, with muscularity and litheness, towards the positive and optimistic conclusion.  Pictorial and protean Gipps’ ‘symphony’ may be, but it was a pleasure to hear it performed live and with such commitment and conviction.

Claire Seymour

This concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Four and is available on BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer for 28 days following the performance.

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