New Horn Concerto by Gavin Higgins in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gavin Higgins, Parry, Brahms: Ben Goldscheider (horn), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jaime Martin (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 14.1.2024. (PCG)

Ben Goldscheider (horn) and Jaime Martín (conductor) © Yusef Bastawy

ParryElegy for Brahms
Gavin Higgins – Horn Concerto
Brahms – Symphony No. 2

The main attraction today was what was advertised as the world premiere of Gavin Higgins’s Horn Concerto. Well, the same performers had played it the day before in the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, but one can allow the slight elasticity of the terminology. Either way, the audience should have been furnished with the greatest amount of information about the composition. That would have enhanced what the composer had described thus: ‘Though abstract, this three-movement piece is an exploration of forests and trees and the undergrowth.’

At any rate, we would have appreciated this description, if we could have read it easily. It appeared in a digital programme available online – although not linked to the advance details of the event on the BBC website – but there were no printed copies. Instead, each patron got a card with advice: access the programme on their smartphone. That, despite a firm injunction in the programme itself to ‘turn off all mobile phones and electronic devices during the performance’. I must once again object to this most unhelpful practice. It does no credit to the adventurous planning of the BBC programmes. I was supplied with a printed copy at the interval, too late to help me follow the concerto. At least, I had the advantage of some memories of an interview with the composer in The Guardian a couple of days earlier; most of the audience will not even have had that.

The concerto is to be broadcast twice in the coming month or so, once from Swansea and once from Cardiff. It may help listeners if I give more information about the music (the pre-broadcast announcements were hazy in the extreme). The three movements have programmatic subtitles, Understorey, Overstorey and Mycelium Rondo, none of them precisely self-explanatory. In any case, they undermine the composer’s contention that the work is purely abstract. In fact, the opening movement is intended as a picture of the undergrowth in the composer’s native Forest of Dean. Here, it is portrayed as a sort of primeval Wagnerian forest, complete with reminiscences of the Ring, in Fafnerian terms. That accords somewhat incongruously with my own memories of those woodlands as very beautiful, tranquil and rather sad; my mother lived there for many years. In The Guardian interview, Higgins drew comparisons with Tolkien, but the actual forest is definitely best described as gloomy, rather than the vengeful and stygian darknesses of the author’s Mirkwood or Fangorn.

The second movement apparently is intended to describe the life of the upper canopy of the forest. In the absence of this information, I had the impression of a chilly winter snowscape of stillness rather than aerial lightness, with a reaving horn melody which rose to ecstatic heights. At several points here and in the first movement, the composer treated the solo horn as part of a quintet with the four players in the orchestra. Passages in the higher register, where all five instruments rang out above the sonorous and large orchestra, provided some thrilling moments.

The final movement, a comparatively short Mycelium Rondo, is named after the network of fungus that connects all plant life in the forest. Some engaging passages of bubbling cadenza with rollicking timpani and percussion accompaniment surrounded the return of material from the opening. That actually established a tonal centre of E-flat for the work, although for much of the time this diatonic undercurrent was thoroughly concealed. Ben Goldscheider tackled his often tricky passagework with aplomb, and blended well in the concertante passages where he interlocked with his orchestral brethren. The work was unusually long for a horn concerto, getting on for half an hour, but he displayed plenty of stamina right to the end.

Before the concerto, we had a rare opportunity to hear in concert Parry’s Elegy for Brahms, sometimes entitled Elegy to Brahms. He wrote it following the elder composer’s death in 1897 but left unfinished. Stanford completed it after Parry’s own death in 1918, and then the score was allowed to gather dust until Sir Adrian Boult revived it one of his last recordings in the late 1970s.Afterwards, it has been published and indeed has featured on several further discs of Parry symphonies and orchestral works. It is unclear why the usually prolific and fluent Parry failed to finish the work. Perhaps he realised that what he was writing was more in the nature of a symphonic movement, possibly even a symphonic poem, than a simple elegy or lament. The work builds dramatically to a strenuous and positively Wagnerian climax, but the final broader pages – presumably the section Stanford added – seem to bring the piece to a rather abrupt conclusion.

Early in his career, Parry had sought to study with Brahms, so it was more than appropriate to end the concert with the Brahms Second Symphony. Beecham once described the score dismissively as ‘suitable for all weathers’, contrasting it unfavourably with Delius’s summer landscapes. Yes, when it is subjected to a lingering or over-affectionate performance, the first two movements in particular can seem interminable. Brahms actually wrote additional bars to allow for an exposition repeat in the first movement. Thankfully, Jaime Martin moved swiftly ahead into the development. That gave really exciting results not only here but in the slow movement, which achieved an almost Brucknerian grandeur complete with some really enthusiastic trombone deliveries. The lighter-weight Allegretto was really grazioso as marked, and the final Allegro had all the spirito that one could desire. The orchestra clearly thoroughly enjoyed their romp. Jaime Martin received hearty cheers from a sizeable Sunday afternoon audience.

Katy Hamilton’s programme note made the link between the early history of the Brahms symphony, the Wagner of Rheingold, and Higgins’s Horn Concerto. That thematic connection will of course have escaped most of the audience, deprived of this material. Which brings me back to the vexed question of programme notes and the lack of BBC budgetary provision to furnish them. The enterprising planners have scheduled a whole feast of rare and unusual delights for the coming season. That includes, by my reckoning, no fewer than five world premieres; a further three works receive their first UK performances. It is unthinkable that these compositions should simply be cast in front of audiences in the concert hall – and on the radio – without any background information to enable listeners to come to terms with what will be totally unfamiliar music.

On 26 January, four works on the BBC programme will all be completely unfamiliar to UK audiences: by Sir James MacMillan, Tan Dun, Ross Edwards and Gavin Higgins again. I will prepare myself, now I have found out how to access the online programmes (they are well concealed), with a printout in advance – although the online format is laid out in an extravagant design not readily or economically printable. At the end of the day, however, my concern is with the composers themselves. They are being deprived of the opportunity which they have a right to expect: that their new works are presented under the most favourable circumstances.

In the meantime, this concert is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 30 January. The Swansea performance of the same works is scheduled for a date to be announced. It will then be available on BBC Sounds for thirty days, and after that on the orchestra’s own website.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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