CBSO/Oramo – 25 February

Mirage, Op.20 [First Public Performance]
Lyra Celtica, Op.50 [World Premiere]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 February, 2004
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Those hearing the Three Mantras in Birmingham a fortnight ago will doubtless have been struck by the individuality both of John Foulds’s harmonic language and his ear for scintillating orchestral sonorities. If neither of the pieces featured at this concert makes quite the same visceral impact, then both are significant contributions to an output intriguing in its overall stylistic and spiritual development.

Foulds must have set great store by Mirage (1910) – a symphonic poem he was able to ’try out’ in rehearsal with the Hall√© Orchestra, but which was not played again until a Luxembourg recording made in the early 1980s and which only received its live premiere tonight. In terms of the forces used and the scope of its programme, Mirage is far from slavishly Straussian. The title most likely refers to the central role of illusion in human aspiration as Foulds saw it, depicted over several sections that complement each other strikingly. The crepuscular scherzo that is ’Mirage’ is one of the two most striking, the other being the brooding encapsulation of ’Man’s ever-unattainment’ – replete with intense quarter-tones in the strings that Foulds seemingly pioneered in his teens. Interspersed with these are more robust sections relating ’Man’s ever-ambition’, ’Man humbled’ and – with suitably tongue-in-cheek heroism – ’Man’s self-triumph’: the whole framed by an introduction and postlude in which ’Immutable Nature’, flowing serenely onward, sets the human question at a decisive and telling remove.

Oramo and the CBSO sounded committed in a work which has waited too long for public exposure – then, after the interval, gave the first performance anywhere of Lyra Celtica. A ’concerto for voice and orchestra’, this is Foulds’s audacious response to Gaelic singing and the affinity sensed between it the 23-tone micro-tonal scale found in Indian classical music, and of which Foulds’s wife Maud McCarthy was a noted exponent. Composed sometime during the 1920s, the finale was left unfinished, but the two completed movements make an effective whole: in each case, a cadenza-like introduction leading first to a varied but predominantly lively allegro, then a haunting intermezzo in which the voice seems to dissolve into and re-materialise out of the musical fabric. This vocalise functions as a melody line, around which a sizeable orchestra – harp and celesta prominent – spins a web of subtle harmonies and textural filigree. Susan Bickley brought elegance and unworldly pathos to music it would be easy to kill through over-interpretation. Good that the composer’s son was in the audience for these premieres – which, along with the Mantras, are being recorded for commercial release later this year.

Framing these little-known pieces were the most often heard of Strauss’s once-audacious sequence of tone poems. Lithe and agile, Oramo treated Till Eulenspiegel as a virtuosic symphonic scherzo – absorbing the narrative of the German prankster into a contrasting succession of incidents, and relishing the opportunity for orchestral display – not least in the mock-solemn trial and execution. The most lightweight of Strauss’s tone poems though it may be, Till is by some way the most cogent in its thematic transformations, which were brought out here to a gratifying degree.

If Also sprach Zarathustra was less all-of-a-piece, this reflects on its more discursive progress – charting the course of Nietzsche’s eulogy to the spiritual ascent of man in bold, often portentous terms. Oramo kept the (in)famous opening sunrise firmly in check, and impressed with his scrupulous balancing of texture in such highpoints as the proto-12-note fugue ’Of Science’ and the skittering evocation of ’The Convalescent’. If the Dionysian climax of ’Dance Song’ felt less than transported, it enabled the epilogue more fully to convey its strangely restive calm – as the opening motif is alluded to in tonally ambiguous terms. Strauss would surely have commended the point being made, and Foulds would no doubt have relished the context in which his music was at last being heard.

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