Concerto for Orchestra [RPS Elgar Bursary commission: world premiere]
Falstaff – Symphonic Study, Op.68
The Song of the High Hills
BBC Symphony Chorus [soloists, Olivia Robinson (soprano) & Christopher Bowen (tenor)]
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 8 October, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
In this on-paper stimulating concert (broadcast live on BBC Radio 3), contemporaneous pieces by Elgar and Delius rubbed shoulders and the programme sported a new opus from 73-year-old Liverpool-born Edwin Roxburgh, a former member of the BBC Symphony Orchestra as an oboist in the Boulez era. Roxburgh’s Concerto for Orchestra (completed last year) is a result of a commission from the Elgar Bursary as administered by the Royal Philharmonic Society, its funds coming from the royalties attracted by performances of Anthony Payne’s Elaboration of Elgar’s sketches for his Symphony No.3. (Payne was in the audience, as was fellow-composer Brian Elias.)
Roxburgh’s 23-minute Concerto for Orchestra displays a great deal of activity and is tersely argued, quite strident at times. The virtuosity demanded of the orchestra is considerable yet one is aware more of a symphonic argument passed among sections and soloists rather than a conscious highlighting of instruments (oboe and flute aside). Until about halfway through, when the work lapses into glissandos and other exotic touches (and reminding of Stravinsky’s The Firebird), Roxburgh could just as well have entitled the work ‘symphony in one movement’ (and thus knocked on the door of exalted pieces in that form by, for example, Lennox Berkeley and Roy Harris, their respective third symphonies, if designedly far removed from either). Somehow, after that ‘interlude’ (for, on a first hearing, it seems not to belong), the Concerto never quite recovers, despite or because of a regeneration of material similar to the opening; and the long-held diminuendo that closes the work is unsatisfying when something loud and emphatic seems more in-keeping with the piece as a whole; this doesn’t seem a work that should end unresolved. This is not the only problem, for the Concerto is over-scored, using too much percussion, and with much brittle writing, although at least the latter is offset by more-yielding material; but, ultimately, Roxburgh’s style curiously reminded of British music from the 1960s, specifically that by Thea Musgrave and Humphrey Searle. Not a criticism in itself, but Roxburgh’s music, with it must be said numerous sonic attractions, lacks a defining authority, which is not to deny his deft handling of the orchestra or that this first performance (in the presence of the composer) was superb on its own terms.
Throughout the concert Sir Andrew Davis was spry and enthusiastic, the BBC Symphony Orchestra consistently responsive to the baton-less and graphic direction of its former Chief Conductor and now Laureate. Elgar’s masterly ‘symphonic study’ of Falstaff (1913) was certainly vividly presented (Davis likes playing Falstaff after a new piece, he did so following Edward Cowie’s Leviathan some years ago at the Proms, 1975 in fact); but it was also brash, with noisy percussion, and did Elgar’s scoring a disservice. If not lacking colour and decibels, characterisation was in short supply and replaced by a spicing-up that was resistible, Graham Sheen with his bassoon more akin to a stand-up comedian (brilliantly accomplished as such) with reflective moments at least being treated with inwardness, leader Stephen Bryant the epitome of tenderness (although cellist Graham Bradshaw was encouraged to be rather clipped), and the closing pages, the dying embers of Falstaff’s life, were fragmented with both meaning and sadness. But overall this was too much a romp; sort of entertaining but rarely finding the depth and import this music can surrender.
And then came something altogether special, a compelling and revelatory account of Frederick Delius’s The Song of the High Hills. Composed in 1911 and 1912, published in 1915, and first performed in 1920 – during which time Richard Strauss had grappled successfully with his trip up and down an Alpine mountain (Eine Alpensinfonie) – The Song of the High Hills caused Delius problems of composition not easily solved. Like Strauss’s ‘symphony’, The Song of the High Hills should not be taken at face value. The inspiration is certainly Norwegian peaks, a particular favourite of the composer’s, but the picture is bigger than that. Delius’s score is at once evocative; it is also awe-struck and, as Sir Andrew observed, this is music concerning “man and nature”, not merely a scenic photograph in music.
Scored for a large orchestra – including three timpanists, six horns, and a sarrusophone (if here, regrettably, a contrabassoon) – Delius supplements his instrumental palette with a word-less chorus (as in Ravel’s concurrently-composed Daphnis et Chloé), an imperceptible yet essential layer of sound that gently vocalises on vowel-sounds and takes the work to an ecstatic outpouring. For all that the piece may well be an ascent and descent, it seems that the music is always calling, and singing, from on high. It’s a ravishingly beautiful score, almost sacred at times, somewhat secluded for all the space suggested (and surviving the Barbican Hall’s brightness, which helped to diminish the Elgar), Delius diarying his innermost feelings in music, and with some specific if understated Norwegian touches, either to folksong, or his friend Edvard Grieg, or to both.
Presentations of The Song of the High Hills are rare, although the late Sir Charles Mackerras conducted a striking version at last year’s BBC Proms. It’s thirty or more years since Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducted BBC personnel in this remarkable piece; and this revival, clearly a labour of love for Andrew Davis, had a splendour and eloquent passion that illuminated every note, every shift of harmony and every shade in the most transporting and enlightening way. The BBC Symphony Chorus was a faithful ‘instrument’, individual yet integrated. For half-an-hour we were in the presence of contentment and enormity – and a gift of a performance.