Street Corner Sibelius
En Saga Stravinsky
Jeu de cartes Nielsen
Symphony No.5, Op.50
Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Saturday, July 03, 2004 St John's, Waterloo, London
Reviewed by William Yeoman
Theres something about a good amateur performance, whether its the real sense of occasion that comes from performing less often or the obvious enthusiasm of the players that a professional life can sometimes stifle, which is often missing from more polished performances. Of course, the same levels of interpretation exist, from merely playing the notes to a performance which arises from a depth of understanding and experience. Happily, on this occasion, the latter was the case.
Tackling big works, as the Westminster Philharmonic under its conductor Jonathan Butcher has so often done, does not necessarily equate with tackling big issues. Through this elegantly constructed programme, Butcher and his orchestra took us from a picture of urban vitality with Alan Rawsthornes Street Corner, through the depths of the unconscious made manifest in Sibeliuss En Saga, on to the abstract conflict which results when civilisation does not adequately address the needs of the unconscious (Stravinsky), and ending in the cataclysmic, though ultimately triumphant, vision of modern warfare and its consequences in Nielsens Fifth Symphony.
Rawsthorne, who today is probably best remembered for his numerous film scores, The Cruel Sea for example, was also a composer of some fine concert music, including symphonies, a ballet and concertos (of which those for piano have recently received a fine recording on Naxos. Street Corner (1944) is an aural portrait of bustling city life; typical of English music of the time, it needs a vigorous approach without letting the sometimes-overblown orchestration to dominate. Right from its rather stentorian opening, Butcher conducted the work with verve, assurance, good humour and definition. The orchestra responded well as a unit, though it quickly became apparent that St Johns is perhaps a little small for an orchestra of this size, the tutti sections somewhat muddy at times.
Inspired by Norse myth and legend, Sibeliuss orchestral palette in En Saga is here punctuated by wonderful effects: dark themes swimming below transparent string textures, a luminous first climax and enormous blocks of harmony striding like giants across a mystical landscape. Butcher brought out the central areas of tension to great effect, with effectively contrasting solo work by Alison Downie (clarinet), Julie Walker (viola) and oboists Jasmine Huxtable-Wright and Anne Westropp.
Stravinskys ballet Jeu de Cartes (A Game of Cards) is a surreal Lewis-Carroll-like work organised into three sections (or Hands) wherein the dancers, dressed as the four suits (cards in a game of poker), do battle, assisted and retarded, by turns, by the mischievous Joker. Being firmly of Stravinskys neo-classical phase (and what we would see today as being thoroughly post-modern) Jeu de cartes would have benefited from a leaner, dryer sound and sharper attacks on the beat than was heard here. Still, it was a performance full of character, with the mock-overture prefacing each Hand given sufficiently contrasting weight.
Stravinskys exploration of the struggle between good (order) and evil (chaos) formed a fitting bridge to Carl Nielsens Fifth Symphony of 1922, a personal response to conflict both on a monumental level (the Great War, previously adumbrated in his Fourth Symphony Inextinguishable of 1916, was obviously unfinished business) and on a personal one (his professional and domestic life had up until this point been in a constant state of flux). This is a big work dealing with big issues. Jonathan Butcher seemed absolutely convinced of his conception of the piece, and set to work convincing us with a very powerful reading indeed.
Falling into two movements, the first subdivided into two and the second into four sections, it is tempting to take the reductive approach and render the work as a series of binary oppositions. But the richness of the score, with its fluctuations of tension over a broad spectrum, its distribution of motifs and themes in differing contexts, the use of a side drum with its menacing interjections passim, and the fugues of the second movement hurtling towards a glorious climax, deny this possibility. Rather, the danger is on the other side: to fragment, to lean towards episodic treatment.
Butcher trod skilfully between the two extremes: the architecture of the work was readily apparent, the contained chaos an inferno in a perfectly proportioned kiln. And thanks to some inspired playing, the resulting piece of work, glazed and fired, was for our understanding and admiration.
If you havent already heard this fine orchestra, I strongly urge you to do so.