BBC Symphony Orchestra/Knussen [Wanderlust … Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson … Heaven is Shy of Earth]

Wanderlust [European premiere]
Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson
Julian Anderson
Heaven is Shy of Earth [BBC commission: World premiere of final version]

Claire Booth (soprano)

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 November, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Oliver Knussen at the BBC Proms, 2009. Photograph: BBC/Chris ChristodolouOliver Knussen’s tenure as Artist in Association with the BBC Symphony promises a whole range of unusual repertoire, as was evident in this programme that featured a new American orchestral work, a seldom heard American song-cycle and a major recent British choral piece in its final version.

The latter was Julian Anderson’s “Heaven is Shy of Earth”, first given (under Andrew Davis) at the 2006 BBC Proms and which has now been extended to almost 40 minutes through the addition of a new third movement, thus reaffirming the concept of parallel unfolding texts in which fragments from the High Mass are set alongside excerpts from Psalm 83 and poems by Emily Dickinson. As before, however, Anderson has succeeded in the potentially hazardous course of bringing such textual diversity into meaningful accord without neglecting unity, whether formal or expressive, over the work as a whole.

The composer has likened his work to a select yet influential lineage of ‘secular masses’ exemplified by Janáček and Martinů, with the former evoked by an opening instrumental ‘Intrada’ pervaded by the haunting timbre of flugelhorn. A plangent ‘Kyrie’ finds chorus and mezzo continually exchanging phrases in a mood of often-urgent supplication, before the addition of ‘Gloria (with Bird)’ in which the interweaving of the Mass text from chorus and the Dickinson poem “Nature is what we see” from mezzo culminates in an outpouring of expressive rapture and attendant orchestral luminosity rarely encountered since Tippett. Moreover, the poet’s indecision over wording of the line ‘Nature is Melody’ as opposed to ‘Nature is Melody’ enables Anderson to set both variants (respectively for mezzo and chorus) in a musical pun on the linear and the textural that Tippett would surely have appreciated.

If there is a fault with the additional movement, it is that its emotional fervour conceivably pre-empts what follows, yet there is nothing anti-climactic about the mezzo setting of lines from Psalm 84 (in the Vulgate) in a lyrically intense ‘Quam dilecta tabernacula tua’. The ‘Sanctus’ is more elaborate: the Latin framing Dickinson’s poem “Heaven is Shy of Earth” typical in its homespun transcendence in an interaction of the universal and personal subsumed by the consistency of Anderson’s idiom. The ‘Agnus Dei’ then crystallizes the musical process in its resonant yet understated sense of apotheosis.

Even more than at its premiere, the work gave notice of a scope and ambition all too rare in present-day British music, and benefited here from the eloquence of Susan Bickley and the alacrity of the BBC Symphony Chorus in realising Anderson’s testing but always idiomatic vocal writing, as also that of Knussen in inspiring the BBC Symphony Orchestra to some of its most committed playing – thus enabling the music’s harmonic intricacy to register even in the immediacy of the Barbican Hall acoustic. Whatever else, “Heaven is Shy of Earth” remains a work that is decidedly, though never modishly, of the present.

Claire Booth. Photograph: the second half dominated the concert logistically and in overall impact, the first half was hardly without merit. Although “Twelve Songs of Emily Dickinson” (1950) has increasingly (and rightly) taken its place among the major song-cycles of the post-war era, its eight-song orchestral incarnation (1970) has yet to achieve comparable status. Whether Copland’s decision to omit four numbers was owing to considerations of time or enthusiasm, the sequence encompasses the Dickinson-esque trajectory of ‘nature-death-life-eternity’ with absolute consistency as well as allowing for expressive contrasts as subtle and as vivid as the poems warrant. The cycle was sung with unfailing poise by Claire Booth, Knussen making the most of a lucid instrumentation in Copland’s “The Tender Land” manner, though it was a pity the forward orchestral balance (to make room for the chorus?) often obscured the vocal line.

Such a balance no doubt played a part in over-emphasising the brass contribution to Sean Shepherd’s triptych Wanderlust (2009). The 31-year-old American has been steadily building a reputation these past five years and, if the present work suggested no pressing individuality, it affirmed an ease with orchestral writing uncommon among younger composers. Virtuosity per se was not lacking, though it was the more introspective moments (mainly at the end of each piece) that really stood out. A fine performance underlined the music’s resourcefulness, such as hopefully will be developed in future works.

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