Scenes from Comus *
Geraldine McGreevy (soprano) *
Daniel Norman (tenor) *
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: October 2001
CD No: NMC D070
Duration: 70 minutes
Few things date faster than a textbook about contemporary music. Should you happen to dust off a survey of British composition in the early 60s, you will find yourself in a strangely unfamiliar landscape. Names such as Peter Racine Fricker, Iain Hamilton and Anthony Milner loom large, Richard Rodney Bennett is termed a serialist and Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle are promising newcomers. The name of Hugh Wood (born 1932) would probably appear in the latter category also. A similar survey ten years later would list Wood as a major figure, thanks largely to the munificence of the BBC music department. However, by the late 80s, his profile had receded to the point where Wood himself suggested he should be wearing a bell around his neck.
That he is now enjoying something of an ’Indian Summer’ is due in no small part to the loyalty of Sir Andrew Davis, which began with the Piano Concerto at the Proms a decade or so ago and continued with Variations at the Last Night of the 1998 season. Now we have this magnificent first recording of two of Wood’s most ambitious and powerful works.
The Symphony occupied Wood for much of the late 70s and early 80s. Its premiere at the 1982 Proms made a huge impression and was perhaps the last high-profile work in Wood’s canon until the Piano Concerto revived his reputation. Everything about it speaks of a magnum opus, conceived fastidiously over several years but sustaining a palpable white heat of inspiration.
As always with Wood, the formal structure of the work is striking. A short, vehement ’Tempesta’ issues without break into an extended elegy, then the process is more or less repeated in a second pair of movements. The opening is a fiercely dramatic rhetoric that grips immediately, a thunder of drums with lightning flashes in the woodwind. Short motivic fragments emerge in the brass only to be lost again in the maelstrom. The eye of the storm could not be more unexpected – a gentle quotation by the strings of the Siegmund/Sieglinde love motif from Wagner’s Die Walkure. The significance of this and subsequent quotations is oblique and adds to the overall impression of an undisclosed personal subtext. An immediate resumption of the storm music after this moment of calm proves to be a trompe-l’oeil as the ’Elegia’ is ushered in.
Here, a threnody is set in motion by a long melodic line, initially proposed by the cellos and continued with increasing passion by multi-divided violins. The sequential phrasing and characteristic gestures and contours of the melodic writing are highly suggestive of late 19th-century romanticism, even though the harmonic language is post-Schoenbergian, as if creating a Mahlerian symphonism by alternative means. This impression is strengthened by a kind of rondo structure whereby the elegy is repeatedly cross-cut with a distant martial music on percussion and woodwind which gradually reveals itself as the ’ordeal’ march music from The Magic Flute. This disconcertingly short-changes the eloquence of the threnody, which seems to have arrived too soon to support the demands it makes on our emotions.
This however emerges as a deliberate strategy when the second pair of movements chart a similar trajectory but this time in a more controlled fashion, as if we are reflecting on a tragedy with the consolation of the passage of time. The scherzo, marked ’con fuoco’ but which could just as easily carry Walton’s ’con malizia’ direction, lacks the expressionist fury of ’Tempesta’ and instead uses a vocabulary of pulsing ostinato patterns, chiefly in the harp and percussion. Set against this, a rising and falling minor third comes increasingly to the fore in the trumpets, which may or may not be a conscious allusion to Janacek’s Sinfonietta. The movement ends with a curious staccato tinkling in regular rhythm, underneath which a brass chorale announces the beginning of the ’Finale’.
Constructed as a set of variations on a ground bass, the model for this movement is surely the passacaglia of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, in its use of different instrumental groupings to delineate each variation and in its mastery of variation form to make a cumulative statement. The variations themselves are astonishingly inventive. At the movement’s climax, the strange tinkling from the scherzo makes an unexpected reappearance and prompts the work’s apotheosis, an extraordinary peroration in which the harmony becomes progressively more luminous, culminating in a huge ringing consonance – the 40-minute symphony’s destination. The appropriation of martial rhythm in the very final bar has exactly the same clinching effect as the ending of the near-contemporaneous Third Symphony of Lutoslawski.
This performance could not be bettered. This is the sort of radical-but-traditional contemporary music that Davis excels in and the BBCSO have in their blood. The dynamic range of the recording is quite staggering.
Scenes from Comus was also a Proms commission, for the 1965 season. It’s a kind of dramatic scena set in a primordial forest. For all that it is based on Milton’s masque, it emerges as a kind of post-Freudian monodrama whose ancestry is undoubtedly Schoenberg’s Erwartung. Hearing the work immediately after the Symphony, one is struck by the consistency of Wood’s musical language. Notwithstanding the debt of the opening wind music to the syntax of 1960s serialism, the writing is already highly characteristic of Wood in its hard-won lyricism coupled with intensely dramatic power.
The elusive scenario of a woman abducted in the depths of the forest by a pagan spirit is articulated ostensibly by soprano and tenor soloists; in fact, the whole orchestra is deployed in telling the story. Much of the orchestral writing consists of a single hauptstimme with attendant accompaniment, as if the drama were being continued even when the soloists are silent. The centrepiece of the work, depicting the abduction, is a tour de force of orchestral writing that has an urgent forward trajectory uncommon in much serial music of the time. Also untypical of serial or quasi-serial music is the way harmony is expressed through chords rather than ’vertical aggregates’. The work ends with an echo-duet during which the textures thin out – as the forest returns to its primal state – and which ultimately crystallise into bright major thirds; an image Britten had used for the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream a few years earlier. The whole work is so effective that one can only regret that Wood has not produced an opera.
The solo parts are well taken, although Norman’s beautifully clear tone and enunciation are perhaps not the ideal timbre for the part of Comus. The orchestral contribution is perfectly judged, with every detail audible.
The standard of NMC is so high that just about every CD it produces seems like a major event. This is another release that not only preserves music of the highest order but also adds to our awareness that the current British compositional scene is one of unprecedented breadth and depth.