A Stirring in the Heavenlies
Piano Concerto No.4
A London Symphony (Symphony No.2)
Lars Vogt (piano), London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox
Reviewed by: Jason Boyd
Reviewed: 17 December, 2000
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
It is hard to define stylistically exactly where we are in the process of musical composition. There is no easy category in which we can label modern art music such as Renaissance, Baroque or, indeed, Classical. And of course categorisations change through time and often occur a long time after the music has been written. Those who are less than impressed with the vast majority of modern music offer terms such as ‘plinky-plonk’ and ‘dreary-drab’ as possible labels. We often mock things we do not understand and so an insight into the inspiration of a piece of music helps in understanding its compositional structure.
Commissioned by The Worshipful Company of Musicians to celebrate their 500th anniversary, Andrew March had the briefing to ‘Preserve Harmony’, the motto of the Worshipful Company. As such the music of the spheres became a theme for the work. As March himself explains: ‘Wonderful thoughts began running around in my head. The Renaissance, with its upsurge of imagination and speculation: the obsession with planetary motion, and harmony of the spheres, the Pythagorean idea of the planets creating beautiful scales, the mathematical order of the universe’. At the head of March’s score is inscribed the words of 17th-century philosopher and physician Sir Thomas Browne in which he states:
‘Order or proportion; and thus far we maintain the music of the spheres; for those well ordered motions, and regular paces, though they give no sound to the ear, yet to the understanding they strike a note most full of harmony’.And so one might be forgiven for expecting a work of considerable elegance and order. I even considered the prospect of a neo-renaissance work, especially as March had initially intended a solo section of Viols to be included in the orchestra. However I was not especially surprised to be confronted with a work of no tonal implications. Instead the orchestra was used rather percussively, with a few novel non-musical effects. The work begins with a tribal pan-pipe effect from the flute, followed by a rising portamento that climaxes in a high whistling. This was certainly unconventional and interesting to hear. The portamento idea is something used considerably throughout the work with one passage standing out above the rest in which all the string sections slide up and down the neck of their instruments in unison.
This did work in creating a somewhat unearthly ethereal sound, depicting well fluctuating celestial bodies. Using a huge ensemble inclusive of two harps, a celeste and a fairly extensive percussion section, March made full use of the range of possibilities to him. His choice of orchestration helped in creating his desired goal of space, the movement in space and all the contraction and oscillation observed within nebulas. I was reminded somewhat of the music and compositional theory of Varèse in which tonality and melody are thrust aside in favour of creating a specific soundworld and experimenting with its movement through space. A Strirring in the Heavenlies gave the aural impression of chaos with sound masses colliding and interacting with one another. This is a very ambitious work that would have benefited from a more modest approach. It is often said that a composer gains freedom by placing limits upon himself and here I sense that Andrew March was simply bombarded by ideas that were impossible to structure within one work.
The idea of Preserving Harmony was somewhat lost, as I perceived no harmony either tonally or structurally. Possibly Andrew March had his own harmonic paradigm as he does speak of celestial harmony being evident in the last five minutes of the work, but whatever is meant by the term celestial harmony was not apparent to me. He used a huge palette of colours that unfortunately made the work somewhat meretricious and embroiled. At times it simply became a wash of noise that passed and was then forgotten. I would like to have heard more order, more dignity, in which we marvel at the beauty in the precision of the universe. Even the chaos within the galaxies has an order, whereas March’s work gave an anxiety of unorganised chaos; I couldn’t clearly hear the music for the sound. A refining would have benefited this work in which the order of the music of the spheres could be easily appreciated.
The unconventional nature of March’s work was highlighted further by its being followed with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Having said this, for its time this work was rather daring in its complete rejection of an orchestral introduction. Instead, the piano begins proceedings. Lars Vogt displayed a dynamic energy and intense expression; Vogt was confident and fluent in his approach.
Finally, Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony, a beautifully eloquent depiction of life in early 20th-century London. Richard Hickox brought all the sections of the orchestra well under his control, lingering over the silence between movements, thus allowing time for reflection on all the life and images that had been portrayed. The string sections were particularly lush giving a solid foundation to the rest of the orchestra. The second movement was especially beautiful with the solo viola introducing a plaintive arabesque full of emotion. The LSO succeeded in creating a massive sound that was carefully contrasted with moments of peaceful calm. My only complaint is that I would have enjoyed a more marked entry of instruments in the fugato of the third movement, which seemed a little bland.
This was an interesting concert with a stimulating choice of works, the LSO performing to its usual high standard, shown especially through its precision in March’s work – although it gave the impression of chaos, it involved considerable concentration