BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion: In Remembrance World War I, including Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie [November 10 & 11]

Written by: Nick Breckenfield

Mark-Anthony Turnage
The Silver Tassie – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by Amanda Holden [sung in English, with English surtitles]

Harry – Ashley Riches
Susie – Sally Matthews
Croucher – Brindley Sherratt

Mrs Foran – Claire Booth

Teddy – Marcus Farnsworth
Barney – Alexander Robin Baker
Jessie – Louise Alder
Mrs Heegan – Susan Bickley

Sylvester – Mark Le Brocq
Dr Maxwell/Staff Officer – Anthony Gregory

Corporal – Benedict Nelson

BBC Singers (men’s voices)
Finchley Children’s Music Group
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Ryan Wigglesworth
Kenneth Richardson – Stage Director

Barbican Centre, London: Cinema 2, Fountain Room, foyers, Barbican Hall; Milton Court Concert Hall
Saturday, November 10 & Sunday, November 11, 2018

Composer Mark Anthony Turnage, centre, with conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, soloists and the BBCSO at Barbican Centre
Photograph: Jamie Simonds/BBC

There seemed no better way to pay due observance to the centenary of the Armistice that ended the First World War (then only known as the Great War), than to submit to the latest BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion project, aptly entitled In Remembrance. While I was intrigued to note that only one of the works over the three concerts was composed during the War itself (though David Owen Norris’s insightful talk added to that tally a little), the other works offered either glimpses of composers who were killed as a direct consequence of the War or – in the case of four present-day composers – pieces that are indelibly affected by the War and its aftermath. Just like Norris’s talk, this widened the scope of the project and opened-up a hinterland of unusual perspectives to add context to the usual primary focus of such commemorations – the horror of life in the trenches and combatants rushing blindly into the enemy lines.

The bar was set first thing with a showing of Clive Flowers’s 2013 BBC documentary about Ivor Gurney, intriguingly titled The Man Who Loved the War. Introduced by Flowers and his unsuspecting presenter, Professor Tim Kendall (who thought originally he was only providing the script, until he realised – under the severe budget restraints – he was doubling as presenter to camera), this turned out to be a model of documentary making: clear and unfussy allowing Kendall’s narrative, the apposite interviews and evocative reconstructions (only visual – and judiciously limited) to tell the extraordinary tale of Gurney who initially found army life in the trenches an invaluable focus, but whose tragedy was to survive the War, ending his days in a mental hospital, with poetic and musical muses long dried up. The difficulties of those who survived the War – perhaps worse than dying during it – would return at the end of the day in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie as well as in Roderick Williams’s ambitious cantata given its UK premiere the following afternoon.

David Owen Norris took up the theme of composers in the War – rattling off brief nuggets about such figures as Benjamin Dale, on his way to Bayreuth as conflict was declared and interned from then on. The German (yes, despite his name – his father was Professor of English at Dresden), Percy Sherwood – was in Highcliffe on Sea at the outbreak of War, so was unable to return home to his family. Norris referenced both Hubert Parry and his successor at the Royal College of Music, George Dyson: the former noted in his diary the experiences of his pupils who had gone to War (including Arthur Benjamin) while the latter wrote three pieces on a scrap of manuscript in the trenches. An excerpt from those was one of the numerous recorded examples Norris brought – Marie Lloyd and Clara Butt included as well as his own recordings with the distinctive voice of Philip Langridge in a clutch of rare songs – as well as typically enthusiastic retreats to the Steinway for live examples. He’d started with a couple of books published about Belgium, the invasion of which had precipitated the War, particularly King Albert’s Book, the contributors to which included musical donations by Elgar (Carillon for narrator and orchestra) and Debussy (Berceuse héroïque). As an aside, Norris also mentioned Debussy’s carol written for the children of War-affected nations (with a vituperative reference, mid-piece, that German children should be excluded from these good wishes). Absolutely engrossing and fascinating.

But we were here for the music and, at 3 p.m. – just as the rain set in for the rest of the day – the focus moved to Milton Court Concert Hall. As presenter Andrew McGregor reminded us, no Total Immersion project would be complete without the contribution by students at the Guildhall School, and the present crop was formidable in this unusual repertoire. Representing five nationalities caught up in the conflict – Spain (neutral, but that didn’t preclude Spanish people dying because of the War), France, Australia, Germany and Britain, here we had three song-cycles separated by two instrumental works. Carmen Artaza intoned Granados’s three La maja dolorosa – like Górecki’s Third Symphony evoking three women weeping the loss of a man. Granados was an innocent victim of the War – he’d delayed his trip back from the USA to sing at the White House, and it so happened that his onward boat across the English Channel was torpedoed and he died trying to save his wife…

Pianist Michael Pandya returned to accompany soprano Katherine McIndoe singing Australian Frederick Septimus Kelly’s Six Songs Opus 6, a few too many lyrics by Logan Pearsall Smith (including a translation of Li Po – from just after the time Mahler was setting Das Lied von der Erde), with two by Shelley and ending with Wordsworth’s The Daffodils. They too predated the War, during which Kelly served with Rupert Brooke and died at the Somme in 1916. To end was George Butterworth’s 1912 quartet of songs to William Ernest Henley, Love Blows as the Wind Blows, the sense of time passing and the growing feeling of loss somehow prophetic in this context, with Andrew Hamilton’s urgent and elegant baritone supported by a sonorous string quartet: violinists Maria Włoszczowska and Juliette Roos, violist Oscar Holch and cellist Akito Goto.

The Silver Tassie performed at Barbican Centre
Photograph: Jamie Simonds/BBC

Somehow I found the instrumental works more emotionally involving. Rudi Stephan – a German composer who had been at the Hochschule in Frankfurt at the same time as Kelly and who was shot in the head just two days after arriving on the Eastern Front in 1915 – was represented by his 1911 piece for violin and piano, aptly titled Groteske, which matched some (but not all) of the various sections, but perhaps was more an indication of the sometime clashing juxtaposition of music. Włoszczowska was not fazed by these sudden turns, nor Serene Koh.

Best of all was Georges Antoine’s 1916 Piano Quartet, with its sombre demeanour immediately characterised by Holch’s viola solo – indeed the viola often leads the musical argument. Dedicated “to those in Liège who wished to defend our ancient Walloon City” the four movements are overtly serious in tone. It’s a thirty-minute work and was presented here – with Juliette Roos and Akito Goto joining Holch and pianist Joon Yoon – with notable concentration to both musical architecture and balance. The broadcast is deferred until Thursday November 22 (Radio 3 Afternoon Concert).

Prior to the second talk of the day, McGregor interviewing both composer and librettist of The Silver Tassie, there was a free foyer performance (two in fact) of David Lang’s adaptable homage to the victims of the Somme, first unveiled at the 2016 East Neuk Festival with the express intention for it to be taken up widely. Here the BBC Symphony Chorus and members of the BBC Proms Youth Choir Academy repeated the mantra “Those who…” at the chiming of Joe Richards’s bell, to form the mesmeric backdrop to Barbican Young Poets to recite their thoughts on conflict and remembrance. At nearly thirty minutes this was too glacial and long-winded, though the specially recorded performance done the previous evening (without the foyer hubbub) might focus the effect of the work (due for broadcast during the interval of the live BBC Symphony Orchestra Barbican relay on 30 November.

So to The Silver Tassie, 2000, revived 2002. The extraordinary fact is that it hasn’t been heard in Britain since then: so unreserved credit to the BBC for mounting this utterly necessary revival. Perhaps the most poignant part of the talk was Mark-Anthony Turnage’s memory of him dedicating the opera to Oliver Knussen, friend and mentor, who died earlier this year. With orchestra, conductor and members of the cast similarly associated with Knussen’s enthusiasm, expertise and erudition, this had an extra level of remembrance.

The Silver Tassie performed at Barbican Centre
Photograph: Jamie Simonds/BBC

Having seen it live at the London Coliseum three times and once on film, I was already in no doubt that The Silver Tassie is a masterpiece, and Ryan Wigglesworth’s scrupulously prepared and performed semi-staging (for which read costumed and some direction, expertly conceived by Kenneth Richardson) only enhanced the opinion. Turnage, responding to Amanda Holden’s super-lean trimming of Sean O’Casey’s 24,000-word play, nails the motives of the original, which shows four stages of young Harry Heegan’s life. It opens with him winning the football trophy that gives the work its title; a second Act (in which none of the main characters appear) shows the front-line horror from the trenches; in the third, in hospital, Harry is injured and condemned to a wheelchair; and in the final Act, at his homecoming party, Harry and other invalids find themselves forgotten as the able-bodied survivors turn their backs on them as they dance into the future (admittedly, perhaps, because their very presence is too much of a memory of the conflagration). It’s an excoriating and salutary statement about the folly of War, and Turnage has never been better in fashioning music from it.

Ashley Riches captured both Harry’s daredevil self-confidence and shattered impotent rage, as did Marcus Farnsworth’s violent Teddy Foran, cowed by his blindness, though lucky to have the loyalty of his wife, sung by Claire Booth. She, along with Harry’s parents – Mark Le Brocq and Susan Bickley as his wife (tellingly her first name is not mentioned) – create much of the despairing home-life; characters unable to comprehend and adapt to the happenings around them. Sally Matthews’s Susie, who becomes Harry’s nurse, and Lousie Alder’s Jessie, Harry’s good-time girlfriend who turns instead to Barney (Alexander Robin Baker) who has survived the War intact, embody those who stumble into the future.

Brindley Sherratt took over the role of Croucher at short notice from Sir John Tomlinson, emoting his damning prophecies about War from the very back of the stage in the expressionist second Act, while the men from the BBC Singers sung the trench-bound troops on the forestage and the boys of the Finchley Children’s Music Group chillingly and cheerfully became the stretcher-bearers. Everyone involved in this production deserves the utmost praise.

And that was not all. On Remembrance Sunday itself, I first sampled the Virtual Reality presentation which 59 Productions has fashioned out of the second movement of Anna Meredith’s Five Telegrams, an immersive and imaginative treatment of Nothing to Be Written with its plethora of correspondence streaming through a letter-box that turns into a trench.

Then to the final concert, offering a centenary gloss on the Great War. The BBC Singers and Sofi Jeannin were joined by the ensemble Psaphos. Bob Chilcott’s setting of five Wilfred Owen lyrics, Move Him into the Sun – here receiving its London première – looks back to the pastoral musical landscapes of Owen’s own time.

The Silver Tassie performed at Barbican Centre
Photograph: Jamie Simonds/BBC

More impressive still was Roderick Williams’s World Without End. Williams’s conception – as he himself explained – has an eloquent simplicity. Having been moved by the diary of Helen Thomas (the widow of poet Edward Thomas) he chose prose excerpts from the last two days when Thomas was on home leave before being killed in France, contrasting them with contemporary German poetry to offer a contextual juxtaposition. Williams’s instrumental ensemble is much more acerbic than Chilcott’s requirements, percussion and accordion to the fore – indeed the work opens with breath sounds on the accordion – and the musical style is much more wide-ranging, including a Weill-like tango, some Schoenbergian Sprechtstimme and influences from Schubert’s Schwanengesang and Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse.

The alternation of German poetry and English prose, and the whirlwind of emotions they encompass, came together in a hugely impressive and moving cantata. This is a major work, and a suitably closing piece of an important weekend of commemoration.

In addition to previously mentioned Radio 3 advice, The Silver Tassie was relayed live at 7 p.m. on the 10th, and the BBC Singers/Psaphos concert was broadcast on Remembrance Sunday at 10.30 in the evening

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