The Period of Cosmographie [BBC commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.10 [Performing Version of Mahler’s draft, prepared by Deryck Cooke in collaboration with Berthold Goldschmidt, Colin Matthews and David Matthews]
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 5 June, 2010
Venue: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
This does seem more than a little odd that two modern masters opt for Mahler’s symphonic antipode during a celebration of Mahler’s own symphonic mastery! Does Mahler retain his fascination on the current mature generation of our composers? Has Sibelius usurped Mahler as a symphonic role model for the future? Are these important questions?
Be that as it may Anthony Payne’s The Period of Cosmographie made a considerable impression. He had already started writing the work which he based on “Thule, the Period of Cosmographie”, the famous madrigal by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), taking the earlier work as a model of an awareness of “the mysteries and fearful wonders of the far north”. During the composition, Payne visited Thule from Weelkes’s title (roughly translated as Iceland, being then the edge of the known world). In a museum in Reykjavik he heard a recording of the subterranean rumblings detected by a seismograph, making the listener terrifyingly aware of the natural forces beyond our control.
No wonder the terrors of Tapiola are recalled in Payne’s work. He follows, to an extent, the formal structure of Tapiola, too, with episodes including a central section of scurrying strings, pianissimo, all the more effective for the eerie sounds he conjures from the full orchestra. Perhaps the wood-sprites of Sibelius are replaced by the gossamer of ice caves. Swelling brass over timpani can also be heard. But Payne’s work comes across as an original concept. The bass drum impersonates the subterranean rumblings from time to time. The Forest’s mighty god of Tapiola is replaced by a menacing world beneath us, waiting to erupt and bring destruction.
Indeed the whole work captures the zeitgeist of our time. The majesty (or nuisance, as you wish!) of one of Iceland’s finest, spewing ash into the hemisphere, the awful behaviour of a certain humanity resulting in innocent lives being shed over the transportation of food supplies, the almost complete collapse of the world’s economic system. These are events that seem to make ordinary members of society feel completely impotent. Man and Nature combining to cause untold anxiety and apprehension on the world at large.
It is a tribute to Payne’s masterly new work that it maintains its integrity and ingenuity when, in other hands, such sentiments, expressed through music, could appear shallow and superficial.
No such worries when listening to Mahler’s valedictory Tenth Symphony. During the pre-concert talk Payne was asked what sort of symphony would have followed the Tenth. He said it would probably have been of a conservative nature rather than taking up the lead of Schoenberg’s musical revolution. The Tenth Symphony, as realised for performance, surely realises this innate drift to conservatism that Mahler undertook after the Ninth, altogether a more progressive work. I place the Tenth high (possibly at the top) of my own loves of all the symphonies. It is more benign and shows more understanding of the world I think I live in than the others. It is effecting and loving at the same time. It is simply redemptive.
Noseda, in both the new work and the Mahler, showed a commanding control of the BBC Philharmonic. The opening of the Mahler was as deeply beautiful as anyone could wish for; the Payne was conducted with full belief in its value as an additional work for the general repertoire (we live in hope!). This concert was a credit to the concept begun months earlier, jointly contributed to by the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic, both assets to the great city of Manchester.