A Shropshire Lad
The Seamstress [UK premiere]
Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63
Jennifer Koh (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 15 January, 2016
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Sakari Oramo’s first season as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra included a fair run of new and recent Violin Concertos; something continued in this concert with The Seamstress (2015) by Anna Clyne. Taking its inspiration from W. B. Yeats’s poem A Coat, the present work has been described by its composer as an “imaginary ballet” – the violin more often a first among equals – which unfolds over ten sections that range from a few seconds to several minutes in length.
Each of these sections is headed by a line from Yeats’s poem, a recurring sequence of chords on woodwinds and percussion acting as a discreet ritornello that typifies the harmonic poise (with its subtle modal inflections) and textural translucency of music that yet has more than enough rhythmic variety to convey the totality of the poet’s diverse narrative. Given with no mean eloquence by Jennifer Koh, with Oramo and the BBCSO fastidious in support, it further reinforced Clyne’s standing as among the most gifted of younger British composers.
The other works, written just over a century before, underlined Oramo’s advocacy of British music. George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad (1912) received a powerfully cohesive reading; as much evocation of time and place as of A. E. Housman’s verse, its climaxes were vividly realised but it was the sombre remoteness of the initial pages and fateful inevitability of the final bars that resonated most strongly. The composer’s profile will come into greater focus in this the centenary of his death (he was killed on the Somme during World War One), but this Rhapsody remains his most inclusive statement.
Oramo’s account of Elgar’s Second Symphony (1911) did not disappoint. The opening movement set the tone as its first theme unfolded with an impetus that did not preclude a wealth of detail emerging. After a lilting transition the second theme had a ruminative poise as anticipated the questing introspection of the development, Oramo mindful to secure a simmering momentum. There was real élan in the cumulative lead-in to the reprise, then the coda harnessed thematic threads with an energy shorn of all bombast. The Larghetto is often seen as an in memoriam to Edward VII yet Oramo rightly looked beyond such considerations. Thus there was no lack of sustained rhetoric at climaxes, rendered in the context of a fatalism made acute in the coda – Elgar not so much lamenting what had passed as admitting the inevitability of that passing.
The formal trajectory of the Rondo that follows is far from straightforward: Oramo underlined this by imparting a tangible uncertainty to the initial pages then bringing palpable desperation to the ‘trio’ with its violent transforming of earlier material, before steadily increasing tension prior to the anarchic jollity of the closing bars. Potentially anti-climactic, the Finale emerged as a confident if hardly predictable rounding-off – its initial idea given just the right buoyancy, with its resolute then majestic subsidiary themes enriching without impeding the underlying flow. There was no lack of equivocation in the development, then the reprise built to a climax whose opulence was such that the absence of an organ pedal (not in the score but sometimes added) hardly mattered. From here the music subsided into a coda whose sense of transience endured the necessary transcendence.