This evening’s music making was a superb start to the Residency in 2019 and there is much to write about! I suspect that it has been a long time, if ever, since Leicester hosted two world premieres in two concerts on one evening.. What was more the size and youth of the audiences to both concerts suggested that new music was becoming again to be seen as a natural part of the classical concert scene. In my youth concert going tended to be rather akin to visiting a museum, a place full of wonderful artefacts of the past. The extra buzz to be got from hearing music of one’s own time and sometimes never before performed and yet music that spoke to one immediately, all of that was relatively rare, not least because some composers of the time showed little interest in speaking to other than a small coterie. Two now acknowledged great 20c composers who featured in these concert programmes , Vaughan Williams and Britten, disdained such an approach and yet found ways of musical speech both new, challenging and yet immediately effective. In doing so they and others gave confidence to those that have followed. The corollary, though, which needs recognising is that much new music will ,alas, prove worth listening to no more than once or, if one wishes to be reasonably sure, twice. One only has to look at 19c. programmes to see how much music of that era has disappeared for ever. T’was ever thus and always will be. Genius has always been in short supply in any one era.
And what of the two new works in these concerts ? The first appeared in a free concert sponsored by the Leicester Friends of the Philharmonia, a concert designed to draw attention to the wealth of solo talent that lies within the ranks of this great orchestra. It was given by the orchestra’s lead cellist Timothy Walden, who demonstrated in a movement from Britten’s Cello Suite No.3 and the first of Bach’s Cello Suites what a fine artist he is, fully capable of meeting the virtuosic and interpretative demands of the music. One was going to hear much more of that in the string music for orchestra that was to follow in the main concert and was a salutary reminder of the individual level of artistry which produces the legendary sound of this orchestra’s string section. Yet it goes further than that, because there are composers within its ranks. As Timothy Walden’s introduction to the new work pointed out, it was written by the musician who sits just behind him in the cello section, by name Richard Birchall. He remarked wryly that he had better get the performance right.
Well, if the effect was anything to go by, he certainly did do just that. The work was a Sonata for Cello in three movements written last year at the time of the centenary of the end of the Great War. Not surprisingly it came across as a work written by someone utterly aware of the possibilities of the cello. The music was excitingly various in its effect but on top of that, without being too literal, it managed particularly in the outer movements to convey possible links and responses to the catastrophe of that war.
The world premiere in the main concert was Geoffrey Gordon’s Prometheus, Concerto for Bass clarinet and Orchestra commissioned by the Philharmonia, with Laurent Ben Slimane the bass clarinettist of the orchestra as soloist and conducted by Martyn Brabbins. To judge from the programme notes this was clearly a work grand in its intended scope, designed no less to be a description in four movements of Kafka’s retelling of one of the more horrific of the Greek myths, and there are plenty of those that qualify for such a description. In this case eagles feeding for eternity on Prometheus’s ever renewing liver one might say comes fairly high up the pecking order of horror!
At a first time listening, it was the opening two movements conveying the brutishness of this particular version of the legend which had some of the most memorable music . The programme wrote that melody is the touchstone in this composer’s output. Well, I hardly think one might expect that to be the case here but there were strikingly jagged and relentless sounds whose colours dramatically conveyed strife, rock and pain. The gradual conversion of Prometheus into rock was tellingly conveyed.
So far so good. Unfortunately then the work rather lost me. In a nutshell it seemed unable to maintain the tension in response to Kafka’s last two versions of the myth. I detected little change in the aural landscape even though the text seemed to me to suggest totally different responses to the legend. As a result I fear my attention began to wander. The ending as the music ebbed away certainly did make an effect but overall I began to wonder whether the work could really be described as a concerto. Finely though it appeared to be played, the music given to the soloist rarely seemed memorable enough to shift the attention away from the orchestra.
The rest of the concert consisted of copper bottomed masterpieces, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro , Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Masterpieces they may be but I wondered whether it might be rather too much of a good thing when heard one after another in a concert, rather like gorging on chocolates. However, in the event it was a joyous and thoroughly illuminating experience in regard to the British, in this case the English, musical renaissance of the last century, how the composers in question took such distinct paths to greatness and yet created music quintessentially of their country. In the first work, besides it starting a fashion amongst English composers for writing for strings in concertante , Elgar finds a sound that is wonderfully of the open air. Ken Russell’s short film for TV in the early 60’s of the work with the youthful Elgar riding his pony over the Malvern Hills to the soaring melody at the centre of the work was right on the button.
Then after the interval in the Fantasia Vaughan Williams re- created in music for the modern age, as he was to do often later, a deeply spiritual Englishness which called on the first great age of English music ,that of the Tudors. I have heard this work so many times and yet every time and certainly here I gasp at the way the opening bars establish with utter simplicity a world of the spheres. Of course, the sound and substance of the piece does not come as if by magic. It is wonderfully crafted string writing but as in some of the best of this composer the music seems to penetrate far beyond our own world as if it was always there just waiting to be found. I remember late in life the composer was awarded some medal by an American arts organisation which spoke of his music as being a benediction to the soul. Of course, his output is far more various than that suggests but it will do as a start to explain the composer’s genius.
Then at the end there was Britten’s again totally characteristic sound world in the Purcell Variations, a work which completely transcends its didactic purpose. Again it is a hugely different sound world to the other two works, clearly embracing some contemporary 20c. European trends, notably Mahler, but in the context of this concert, one was reminded how much of a wonderful orchestrator was this great composer of opera and song and how much he revered Purcell. Each variation came across as music ideally suited to the particular instrument and memorable in its own right, all of it coming together like in the Elgar in another great fugue which rightly is meant to strain every one of the players to create one of the most exciting and uplifting conclusions in all music, the return of the Purcell theme. Here the audience erupted at the end of what had been in the nature of a master class in the evolution of British music.
I have left last any mention of the conductor ,Martyn Brabbins. For years this conductor has been an indefatigable proponent of new music not only in this country but abroad as well. One has heard nothing over the years but high regard for him as a conductor of the front rank yet perhaps because of being so much on the move and perhaps rather rarely in London he’s not quite been given his due. Which is a pity because judging from my recent experiences of his conducting at the The Three Choirs Festival and at the English National Opera, of which he is now Music Director,and by the way critics have been falling over themselves with regard his latest recordings of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, he is in the very front rank of conductors. Judging by this concert he has the great gift of finding the appropriate pulse of the music and never letting anything sag and yet also finding often by the subtlest of reining in and moulding all the expressiveness one could wish for. My goodness, though, with an orchestra like the Philharmonia how he can get the sound to blaze and excite, how the Elgarian fugue carried all before it, likewise the sections that featured the brass and then the strings in unison in the Britten work. This was simply great music making.