American Symphony Orchestra – Bliss, Bridge & Vaughan Williams

Oration (Concerto Elegiaco) for cello and orchestra [1930]
Concerto for piano and orchestra in B flat [1939]
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.4 in F minor [1934]

Matt Haimovitz (cello)

Piers Lane (piano)

American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 7 April, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

The New York-based American Symphony Orchestra, under music director Leon Botstein, traditionally programs what it describes as “unusual and unjustly neglected works linked by theme, period or nationality”, and on this occasion, the theme was “The Gathering Storm” – Churchill’s description of the pre-World War II years – and the music consisted of two concertos and a symphony, all composed by English composers in the 1930s. Botstein led excellent performances of these works by Frank Bridge, Arthur Bliss and Ralph Vaughan Williams that certainly established the injustice of whatever neglect they may have suffered.

The evening began with a technically virtuoso and emotionally searing performance by Matt Haimovitz of Bridge’s Oration for cello and orchestra.

The ASO was immediately impressive in the work’s introductory passages, leading to the cello’s entrance with its mournful elegy for the fallen of the First World War. Haimovitz, who consistently produced a clear, ringing tone from his instrument, played this powerfully and lyrically. After a slow funeral march, the cello’s agitated outburst soon gave way to a reprise of grieving tone of the elegy. The return of the march, now replete with the sounds of martial combat, suggested Bridge’s pacifistic outrage at the terrors of war. In an extended cadenza, Haimovitz met the technical challenges posed by Bridge, at one point playing arco and pizzicato simultaneously, a finger of his left-hand plucking one string while the remaining fingers and his bow-hand played on the other strings. Following the cadenza and a return of the lyrical but mournful elegy, a snare drum roll, quickly taken over by the timpani, introduced another march episode – this time a rather grand processional featuring trumpet fanfares. The cello’s lament returned for the final time, and the work ended with a tranquil epilogue in which the horns and harp figured prominently.

I found Oration somewhat close in spirit to Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo that features prominently the cello’s plaintive qualities and progresses through agitated episodes to end in quiet contemplation. However, Bridge’s fairly explicit references to war and its grief-filled aftermath ultimately took his piece in a different direction from Bloch’s. Oration clearly merits inclusion in the standard cello repertory along other major works of the twentieth-century – including Cello Symphony by Bridge’s pupil, Benjamin Britten.

Bliss was commissioned to compose his piano concerto for British Week at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and he dedicated it to the people of the United states as well as to Solomon, the great English pianist who premiered the concerto in Carnegie Hall with Sir Adrian Boult conducting. Bliss aptly described it as “a concerto in the grand manner and what is loosely called ‘romantic’.” This work is indeed very much in that tradition of piano concertos and stands up well next to them.

The London-based Australian pianist Piers Lane gave a brilliant performance of the Bliss. Lane was dressed in white tie and tails, a more formal outfit than either Haimovitz or Botstein wore, but once seated at the piano, his socks, striped in several glowing colours, could be seen. His flamboyant playing was much more in the spirit of his socks! The audience was completely bowled over by Lane’s performance and enthusiastically cheered and applauded him at its conclusion.

Lane’s playing of the extended solo introduction was dazzling and set the tone for his entire performance. He projected the dynamism of the opening theme, which dominates the first movement’s development section, and the lyricism of that movement’s second subject as well as the ensuing Adagietto. Lane’s playing of the fiendish first movement cadenza was particularly noteworthy.

It is in the third movement, however, that Bliss seems to project both his wartime recollections and his pacifist hopes for the future. The ending is not bleak despite the fact that the outbreak of the Second World War was just months away. This finale is in the form of a rondo, with episodes in a variety of styles each followed by its recurring theme, which finally brings the concerto to a rousing close.

The hopeful mood with which both of the concertos ended was nowhere to be found in the Fourth Symphony of Vaughan Williams, which followed the interval. Boult premiered this symphony (prior to receiving his knighthood) in 1935, by which time war-clouds were gathering over Europe.

From the very first bar, this work is dominated by the brass section – which fortunately played very well – and by martial themes. Unlike most of Vaughan Williams’s symphony endings (save No.8), this symphony closes with a bang, not in serene contemplation or eerie uncertainty. Even the Andante moderato second movement lacks any real warmth, although the prominent solo flute and bassoon passages were very well played. The third movement scherzo bridges seamlessly into the final movement’s march, which is only briefly interrupted by muted strings. Following the resumption of the march, a fugal section ultimately gives way to the return of the symphony’s opening subject, ending with a final blast that fails to provide a tonal resolution.

Botstein, although generally more acclaimed as a programmer than as a conductor, led a quite convincing performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth, with the orchestra in good balance throughout and the section playing very cohesive. If the symphony proved somewhat less interesting than the two concertos that preceded it [What! – Ed.], responsibility cannot be laid at Botstein’s door. To the contrary, he is to be congratulated for assembling a rewarding programme and securing the services of two most able soloists to perform it with him and the American Symphony Orchestra.

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