Half Heard in the Stillness
Orchestral Variations The Seeds Long Hidden
The Spirits Harvest
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd
Reviewed: 22 September, 2006
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London
Anthony Payne is one of this country’s most senior and distinguished composers, best know to the wider public for his elaboration of Elgar’s sketches for his Third Symphony, first performed in February 1998. Given the attention focussed on that project I find it extraordinary that so little fascination has subsequently been paid to Anthony Payne’s own music. His orchestral work Visions and Journeys won the BBC Radio 3 Listeners Award at the 2003 British Composer Awards, which would seem like the ideal peg on which to hang a recording and repeat performances, yet nothing happened. He had a brief nod in this year’s Proms, the year of Payne’s 70th-birthday, with the completion of another unfinished Elgar work, Pomp and Circumstance March No.6, and that was that. This studio concert seemed like a rather belated celebration.
Anthony Payne gave a brief spoken introduction to each work in conversation with Ivan Hewitt in which he explained his sudden conversion to music, caused by hearing the opening of Brahms’s First Symphony on the radio without knowing until many years later what it was. He also described his growing admiration for the English Romantics: Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Delius and others and the difficulty of reconciling this love with the musical orthodoxy of the 1950s and 1960s and his own desire to embrace in parallel the modernism of Gerhard and Lutoslawski, and reconcile the two. He also noted that he regards Vaughan Williams as the greatest symphonist of the twentieth-century: “not Shostakovich – contentious I know, but that’s what I believe.”
Half Heard in the Stillness, dating from 1987, is a ten-minute orchestral tone poem using as its starting point the short work, Memorial Chimes, which Elgar wrote for the Loughborough Carillon. The music opens with still string chords leading to a flute melody and muted horns. The string melody is built gradually via horns and trumpets and opens into evocative moonlight stillness into which a solo trumpet interjects an angular phrase. The music becomes gradually more urgent building layers of orchestral texture with woodwinds, especially flute, prominent, followed by a series of timpani stokes and trumpet calls. The music sweeps up to a sudden cymbal stroke over a bass chord, the angular phrase is repeated on trombones and the music gradually dissolves into stillness over the opening string chord.
Orchestral Variations – The Seeds Long Hidden (1994) is written for a much smaller orchestra, reduced strings, double woodwinds, two horns and two trumpets. Anthony Payne’s note described in some detail his basic theme in three parts and a series of ten variations, each alluding to music which has been part of his own exploration and development as a composer.
The opening material sets out sustained trumpet notes over a sequence of flowing chords, contrasted with a rising and falling theme. The leads to the first variation where a throbbing accompaniment gradually comes into focus as a fully-fledged quotation from Brahms’s First Symphony. The second variation, much faster, offers scurrying commentary on this, urgent pedal notes underpinning a waltz-like section. The third variation opens with horns calling over a detailed orchestra texture that reveals a prominent hint of George Butterworth and a much fainter presence of Vaughan Williams.
The fourth variation is more urgent, with further allusion to Brahms and, apparently, to an earlier work of Payne’s, Phoenix Mass, which I haven’t heard. The fifth is energetic, swinging rhythms, off-beat horns and bassoons underpinned by timpani and sudden shifts of texture highlighting brass or timpani for brief moments. The sixth variation is a spacious Adagio, the opening melody becoming gradually more angular with wide intervals. Two solo violins share a lyrical exchange. As the music reaches its peak it falls back to end quietly but with a disturbing air of being not reconciled. Anthony Payne does not directly allude to Elgar in this work, but the pattern of the variations, particularly the fifth, sixth and seventh, is a clear tribute to the central section of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’, centred on ‘Nimrod’. This is made more explicit in the extended seventh variation.
The eighth is more robust, angular strings contrasted with woodwinds, music which is challenging without being unrewarding. The ninth is again fleet and urgent, scurrying, references to Delius and Sibelius passed me by I’m afraid, but there is a clear sense of something not entirely comfortable, not at all easy, in the music. The final variation gradually becomes more lyrical, horns prominent and ends, not with a bold statement, but a gentle whimsical throwaway gesture.
Spirit’s Harvest was Anthony Payne’s first Proms commission, from 1985, and he has noted elsewhere that the audience and auditorium seem to demand a composer’s boldest gestures. This extended work was begun in 1973 and put aside when the composer found he had neither the language nor the time to complete it and rescued by the Prom commission, which came at exactly the right moment to encourage completion. The work is in a single movement based on three groups of material which the composer describes as “pastoral, dance (of a sort) and nocturnal”. The pastoral music consists of a long wind melody, the dance music again on wind with brass accompaniment and the nocturnal music includes distant trumpet and horn calls.
The work, which uses a full orchestra, opens with a rocking harp accompanied from horns and strings, with more than a hint of underlying edginess. Snapped bass pizzicatos and trombone glissandos show a clear nod to Bartók, the music rises in bold gestures from woodwind and brass, with great energy. Fierce flute trills are compounded with leaping horns. A solo string quartet engages in urgent debate and the texture becomes dominated by brass before unwinding to the depths of the orchestra with echoes, maybe, of Sibelius, coming to rest of a low string chord. The ending felt uncertain – as if the victory of which the composer wrote in his note was not certain.
Although advertised at 25 minutes this performance was closer to 35 minutes. Martyn Brabbins conducted with clear, unobtrusive gestures, generating a focussed response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra – completely inside the music.
This concert will be broadcast in BBC Radio 3’s “Hear and Now” slot (late Saturday evening) at a date yet to be fixed.