Gerard Schurmann in-depth from the BBC PO in Salford

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schurmann: Xiayin Wang (piano), BBC Philharmonic / Ben Gernon (conductor). BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford, 8.11.2023. (RBa)

Ben Gernon and Xiayin Wang

Gerard SchurmannThe Man in the Sky Overture (1994); Piano Concerto (1972-1973); Romancing the Strings (2015); Gaudiana, ‘Symphonic Studies’ (2000-2001)

The concert evidenced two major strands in the musical life of Java-born British composer Gerard Schurmann (1924-2020). Two shorter works derived from his immersion in film music, two more extended statements – from the concert hall.

Ben Gernon conducted without baton and without a podium. The BBC PO, on very fine form today, have had a longstanding association with Schurmann. They recorded with him in the early 1980s, and Rumon Gamba set down a film music collection for that exemplar of British film music revival, Chandos.

The Man in the Sky music here takes the form of a short overture. It is based on the most splendidly kinetic sections of Schurmann’s score for the Jack Hawkins Ealing studio thriller from 1957. The music, which calls for a very full orchestra, plunges stormily forward and seethes with influence of Schurmann’s good angel, Alan Rawsthorne, who gave the composer his entrée into the ‘industry’. The first piece in these concerts seems often to be the orchestra’s chance to warm up, but here they plunged in at full throttle.

The Piano Concerto strikes awe with its often ferocious, frenetic and splenetic energy. Very much of its time half a century ago, it yet speaks to us today. Its feral attacks, pressing constantly forward, conjure memories of John Ogdon who gave the premiere. Xiayin Wang, who has established herself with several Chandos recordings, is an assertive and impressive presence of a musician. She played this half-hour three-movement work without a score. In this comparatively tough score, Schurmann’s language touches base with Messiaen, Shostakovich and Panufnik at their most fury-driven. There are a few passages of repose, and notably the piece starts with paragraphs for solo piano that shimmer with slatey Debussian delicacy, but not for long.

After an intermission, there came another reminiscence of the film world. Romancing the Strings is predictably scored for strings alone, and a very full string band at that. The piece is based on Schurmann’s music for the Patrick McGoohan 1963 film Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow. As the composer has written, it does convey ‘feelings of ardent and wistfully nostalgic romance’. The most sweetly disposed work here, it is an extended and wonderfully a sustained hymn to the mood and emotions. It is also the most easily accessible, yet far from facile, score in the concert. I should add that, as far as I can see, this music picks a more concentrated path from the eight-movement suite on Gamba’s Chandos disc.

The concert came to a most impressive close with Gaudiana, dedicated to Carolyn Nott. These ‘Symphonic Studies’ – a Rawsthorne title, as it happens – run to 25 minutes and are scored for full orchestra. Unsurprisingly, the inspiration lies in the built legacy of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). The composer referred to the enigma that is Barcelona’s and Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia cathedral. In 2005, the city saw the work’s premiere conducted by Gamba. Gaudiana is crafted in an impressionistic style that is all Schurmann’s own. That said, its ‘floor plan’ derives from an instinctive flow of ideas and colours. It has a distinctive yet subtle Spanish-flecked accent, although this only becomes assertive in the second part of the work.

The event was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2024, Schurmann’s centenary year. It is to be followed by two days of recordings sessions from which a Chandos CD will be crafted. The label has issued four discs thus far: two film (already noted CHAN 10979, and CHAN 9749 of Rawsthorne’s music with several arrangements by Schurmann) and two concert-hall (CHAN 9167, CHAN 9915). If you would like to explore further – as well you might – then there also are four CDs of Schurmann’s chamber music on Toccata Classics.

This afternoon’s concert, in front of fully booked audience, was attended by the composer’s widow Carolyn Nott, and by his daughter and friends. The family has plans for various projects, among them to secure funding for his almost hour-long cantata Piers Plowman. The piece for soloists, choir and orchestra was written in the 1970s for the Three Choirs Festival, where Alan Sanders conducted it. There are high hopes for this very fine major work, even if it looks for now that it will have to wait in the middle distance.

Paul Conway, who also attended the concert, has written a very full and accessible Schurmann essay (here). Read it alongside Carolyn Nott’s article (here) she wrote for the composer’s 80th birthday.

Rob Barnett

1 thought on “Gerard Schurmann in-depth from the BBC PO in Salford”

  1. How much I enjoyed Rob Barnett’s accurate review of the Salford BBC Philharmonic concert of Gerard Schurmann’s music. He stated everything clearly, giving background information that he’d carefully researched, and, of course, I like his enthusiasm for the music. He’s an excellent writer, and I shall treasure this review.

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