Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
Symphony No.9 in E flat, Op.70
Symphony No.6 in E minor
Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 28 November, 2011
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
This sold-out Kensington Symphony Orchestra concert opened with the gentle tolling of a bell and lamenting refrains from strings. Whether Arvo Pärt’s written-immediately tribute to Benjamin Britten (who died on 4 December 1976) has ‘lasted’ over the intervening years is arguable, for repetitions of repetitions even over a brief duration of six minutes easily pall – but that is to reckon with this imposing performance that grew to a sonorous and sustained body of sound before the bell struck again – to silence.
Notable too these accounts of contemporaneous symphonies that surprised their first audiences – the Shostakovich because it wasn’t the expected post-war celebration for vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra (it was a ‘ninth symphony’ after all), and the Vaughan Williams given its aged composer (born 1872) had followed his contemplative, pacific Fifth with a work of turmoil, danger and enigma. (And he had three more symphonies to write – each remarkably inventive.)
Shostakovich’s pithy five-movement Ninth (first heard in November 1945 with the Leningrad Philharmonic and Evgeny Mravinsky) is something of a divertissement – with edge and irony. Circus and buffoonery elements, too, well brought out here in the first movement – from piccolo to trombone. Further excellent woodwind solos expressed the slow movement, strings loaded with foreboding. The driven scherzo had its jagged angles incisively integral to the fizzing playing before the brasses’ dire summons was answered by a pleading bassoon, very well taken by Nick Rampley. Russell Keable got the tempo spot-on for the finale’s Allegretto marking, giving leeway to jocularity, then building to bite and ferocity, and – very possibly given Shostakovich’s penchant for ciphers and double entendres – sarcasm. His ‘war’ was still going on.
With Ralph Vaughan Williams’s great Sixth Symphony, first heard in April 1948 from Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it’s all too easy to relate it to the then-recent conflict of World War Two (and to hear the work’s finale as describing a nuclear wasteland). The composer was in denial, however, as to it being anything beyond a piece of music. Keable and his Kensingtonians threw us straight into tempest and anger, then gawky rhythms, before ensuring that the ‘big tune’ (already hinted at) made a glorious full presence. This was a performance of real commitment, Keable’s success being to weld a relationship between the four movements – creating a ‘real’ and indivisible Symphony. Thus the first movement’s momentum continued into the Moderato second, tension-filled and restless, searing to a relentless climax before an eloquent cor anglais solo offered some consolation, certainly as fashioned by Chris Astles. The scherzo (revised by Vaughan Williams to include extra brass parts – Boult’s first recording and that of Stokowski preserve the original pages) was suitably ferocious, a tenor saxophone conjuring up a decadent nightclub. Then at the music’s most incandescent passage, the sudden change to the finale’s desolation was made to seem inevitable – a further tribute to Keable’s seamless all-is-related approach – this cold, inhospitable landscape conjured by particles of sound and fragments of melody (marked pianissimo throughout) gradually fading from view, the work stopping on a question mark … to silence, once again … this time nothing could follow. Singularly impressive: symphony and performance.