Sunday, April 06, 2008

New Rawsthorne for old

March 30 in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, had the first performance of Edward Harper’s re-orchestration of Alan Rawsthorne’s cantata Kubla Khan and first concert performance of the work. The poem is, of course, one of the best known in the language, frequently anthologised and full of familiar lines. It has an exotic flavour that one might think unlikely material for Rawsthorne, a composer more urban than one for the countryside or the orient, but it brings him to Coleridge’s dreamland with a hint of spice. Harper helps to invoke the atmosphere with some subtle but simple flavouring, mostly flute and xylophone.

If the man from Porlock interrupted Coleridge, it was a bomb from Germany that interrupted Rawsthorne. On the night that the work was given a studio performance at BBC Bristol, Rawsthorne’s flat together with the score and parts from Kubla Khan were destroyed. Despite friends who thought the work one of Alan’s best, he never got around to rewriting the score, All that remained was a vocal score which formed the basis for Harper’s reorchestration. The work lasts sixteen minutes and all but the spicy bits are typical Rawsthorne, from the very opening chords (C major triad anchored by an A flat in the bass). The words ‘a stately pleasure dome’ brings on another fingerprint, a seven-note phrase lifted from the Mathis der Maler symphony by Hindemith that Rawsthorne used again and again as the chief tune of the Street Corner overture.

I once asked Alan why he had set so few poems and he said ‘because I love poetry so much. Music so often drowns it’. Well it doesn’t here in this short cantata: ‘the tumult…prophesying war’ brings the middle section to a climax which dies down into the ‘caves of ice’. ‘Fast thick pants’ avoids bathos and the work ends shortly after ‘the Abyssinian maid’ singing her ‘symphony and song’

The work is a delight, well written for the chorus, with a few pages for solo alto and tenor (sung in Manchester by members of the chamber choir). Harper’s orchestration has style and imagination. But a short choral piece is not easy to programme. Perhaps it might be paired with his friend Constant Lambert’s Rio Grande to make a first half?

Incidentally Lambert was staying with Rawsthorne and his first wife Jessie Hinchcliffe at the time of the Bristol bombings and was seen helping to quell the flames… with small watering can. It was also in a review of Rawsthorne’s enchanting Theme and Variations for two unaccompanied violins that he write “If one wondered at the many passages of double-stopping in this work one had to remember that, as well as studying music the composer had taken a course in dentistry.
After the cantata and the interval came the huge Resurrection Second Symphony of Mahler. Who but Mahler would have dared take on such a subject? And make it work? Positively cosmic. Doom and gloom, then breathtaking beauty, renewal and love.

The Amadeus Orchestra is, I understand, a training organisation But it was equal to Mahler’s demands and spirit. Philip Mackenzie was thoroughly in control conducting a convincing performance with several local choirs and two excellent soloists in Elizabeth Atherton and Jeanette Ager. The performance did not do justice to the pianissimo choral section but after some sagging about ¾ way through, the tension returned for the final climax.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Colin Davis celebrates with New Passion

Sir Colin Davis has been celebrating his 80th birthday in style, conducting Berlioz with the French National Orchestra, Gerontius in Boston, the Fauré Requiem in Dresden, Messiaen in London plus Cosi Fan Tutte at Covent Garden, recordings of the Beethoven Piano Concertos (with Kissin), Creation and the Mozart Requiem, a Matthew Passion in Amsterdam and concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Quite a year for him. He was born in September 1927.

The culmination of this anniversary year was the world premiere in the London Barbican of a St. John Passion by the Scottish composer James MacMillan. Sir Colin has played quite a few works by this composer and asked him to write something for this occasion, the work to be repeated in Amsterdam, Boston and Berlin; quite a send-off for MacMillan, born 1959, the more so because the Passion was recorded last Sunday, 27 March.

MacMillan is a committed Catholic and that faith shines in the musicthat he has composed whose performance forms part of the LSO Belief series. This John passion lasts about 100 minutes, has a baritone soloistwho sings words from the gospel and other sources, presumably by the com-poser. The text is sung by a chamber choir for narration, a large chorusfor comment and some portions in Latin of a more reflective and objectivenature. The composer writes, "The instrumental approach was to make a sparse and lean texture (so there is limited percussion, no harps or the usual keyboards)"

This statement is baffling because the orchestral part is anything but sparse and I think it must be the loudest oratorio ever written. The brass and percussion, the big guns, are brought into prominence for 80% of the piece. Overkill. The trombones snarl continually, drummers whack away ear-splittingly and the big tam-tam gong sounds altogether too much. For contrast three solo violins provide a sort of overhanging filigree. There are quieter moments for the chorus (beautiful writing) towards the end of part one and similar moments in the second part, which contains a setting of the Stabat Mater poem. There are ten separate sections, the final one Sanctus immortalies, miserere nobis, being for the orchestra alone, mainly for strings, putting one in mind of the third act prelude to Parsifal. Curiously enough, in this movement the cellos quote the first four notes, unaccompanied, of the prelude to Tristan (but without the chord).

Each time Christus sings - a masterly performance by Christopher Maltman - the first vowel has many notes, rather like the incipit in an illuminated manuscript. The choral writing is fine and at times a wailing portamenti is used. Whenever Pilate speaks wood blocks sound, for all the world like popping corks. The texture is usually very dense; behind a layer of sound, an almost alien other instrument is heard, as if in another room. Despite the extreme loudness the music is basically geared to tonality, give or take an occasional Charles Ives-like use of two keys at once. One section that puzzled me and sent me to check with my Bible to see if it appeared there (no, it doesn’t) was entitled The Reproaches: Christ bitterly asking "My people, what have I done to you?" and listing all the wrongs done to Him. This struck me as alien, un-Christ like.
This music has a soul, sincerity fairly batters the senses. But it impresses, rather than moving the emotions. No doubt it is useless these days to expect melodies that stick in the memory or even melodic fragments that are memorable; MacMillan doesn’t beguile the listener or strike the heart as, say, Britten's War Requiem does. Sir Colin did a marvellous job: chorus, soloist, orchestra; all sounded totally prepared and absolutely committed.