Between Two Waves of the Sea [World premiere] *
Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)
Christopher Yates (viola)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Michael Seal *
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 15 December, 2004
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
That the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-association scheme has not precluded commissions from others was confirmed by this premiere of a major new piece from Richard Causton. Now 33, he came to prominence a decade ago with the translucent ensemble work The Persistence of Memory, and excited controversy with the hard-hitting Millennium Scenes – which saw in the new century in decidedly ambivalent terms. Glib but also true to say that Between Two Waves of the Sea imaginatively combines aspects of both works in a 20-minute fantasy whose two contrasting movements complement and integrate with each other in subtle and intriguing ways.
The fact that the first half is one of steadily mounting activity, while its successor gradually pacifies the material, might sound conventional enough in terms of recent British orchestral pieces. In fact, Causton redefines the ground-plan through the presence of pre-recorded sections of orchestral music which, activated in performance by a sampler, are made integral to the work’s harmonic processes and formal logic – endowing a sense of spatial development which opens the music out onto a new and exciting plane. So the opening section proceeds in bursts of incisive rhythmic energy, with only brief anticipations of pre-recorded material, to a point where salient ideas coalesce into a central nucleus. Progress toward an eventual repose is then enriched with recollections of what has gone before, so the final pages have the sense of arrival at a new beginning through the piece having come full circle: a musical embodiment, perhaps, of the famous lines from Eliot’s “Little Gidding” that inspired the title.
Elaborately but resourcefully scored, Between Two Waves of the Sea is a tough assignment for any conductor, and Sakari Oramo’s continued indisposition could have been disastrous. However, former CBSO violinist Michael Seal – who conducted the pre-recorded component earlier this year and whose work across the Midlands has been widely praised – was on hand to direct a confident account which conveyed the piece’s diversity and overall coherence to telling effect. One trusts that Jane, Anne andJohn Arthur, who commissioned it in memory of their parents, were pleased with what they heard.
The remainder of the programme was taken on by Alexander Anissimov, who cannot have had many opportunities to conduct Britten’s Lachrymae, but who brought out a good deal of its wistfulness and elegiac intimacy. Written with piano in 1950 and orchestrated a quarter-century later (it was the lastproject Britten completed before his death), the work explores a restrained concertante relationship between viola and strings – such as seems to embody frequent if veiled allusions to the composer’s earlier works, in addition to the Dowland song whose eventual statement forms a moving apotheosis. Christopher Yates wisely refrained from projecting the piece as a solo vehicle, and though textures were occasionally obscured in the ample acoustic, the music’s pale radiance came through unimpaired.
Working extensively with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland over the last decade, Anissimov has recorded the symphonies of Rachmaninov and Glazunov, and is at home in Russian repertoire. In its straight-ahead, unaffected direction, his Shostakovich Eleven left outwardly little to be desired. The evoking of place in ‘Palace Square’ was painstakingly rendered, though the anticipatory tension created by the start of ‘The Ninth of January’ was not always fulfilled in an account where graphic and psychological facets were never quite aligned. Similarly, the measured tread at the start of ‘Eternal Memory’ failed to blossom at its climax into the compassion that expands the work’s emotional orbit appreciably. The ‘Alarm Bell’ finale was pugnaciously delivered, though side drum (as throughout) and bells needed to cut more decisively through the texture at the close, and it was Peter Walden’s soulful cor anglais soliloquy just before that left the deepest impression – as, perhaps, it should in the context of this monumental and ultimately equivocal symphony as a whole.