Rebecca Hill, Alistair Rycroft, Tim Thorpe & Ellie Reed (horns)
Guildhall Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 16 January, 2003
Venue: Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London
As part of the BBC’s Momentum series featuring the music of Mark-Anthony Turnage, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama presented a number of concerts, a lecture and chamber music recitals to supplement the various events in and around the Barbican.
It is an indication of the high standard of achievement – individually and collectively – of the Guildhall students that its Symphony Orchestra is able to present a programme which places such fearsome demands upon the players both. Drowned Out is the third piece Turnage composed when he was Composer-in-Association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and first conducted by Simon Rattle in 1993. A scene describing a drowning man in William Golding’s novella, “Pincher Martin” provided the starting-point for the work. Turnage’s soundworld is distinctive and readily recognisable, and the alternation between strident and gentle moods is typical of his work. The orchestra provided a ready response – with the horns being especially piercing and wild, and later on the exuberant, almost Latin-American feel to some of the rhythms was exhilaratingly conveyed. The keening melodies were played expressively but one could imagine a performance where the striking contrasts were more readily communicated. Sian Edwards propelled the music along efficiently enough, but a greater incisiveness of attack was necessary in places.
Four-Horned Fandango was, for this listener, something of a disappointment. The opening is strikingly reminiscent of the string music (with sinister glissandos) which begins, and occurs throughout, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Over this, the horns have cantabile lines that gradually intertwine. The fandango itself takes time to really get going and, when it does, I did not have the sense of “the dominant impression is of powerfully sexual energy” promised in Geraint Lewis’s programme note. In fact, I found much of the musical material rather undistinguished and lacking the excitement of Turnage’s acknowledged model, Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns. The four horn players were superb, and the orchestra evidently enjoyed the rhythmic twists and turns.
The altogether weightier fare of Michael Tippett’s Second Symphony presented different challenges, not all of which was fully met. Commissioned by the BBC to mark the 10th anniversary of the Third Programme in 1957, the first performance the following year notoriously broke down, with Sir Adrian Boult accepting responsibility, the likely cause having been the reluctance of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s then leader, Paul Beard, to accept Tippett’s thorny string writing as being playable. Nowadays, such scoring poses fewer difficulties to seasoned performers, but the cut and thrust of the string lines posed some problems for the Guildhall players whose enthusiasm, nevertheless, could not be faulted. Again, some crisper direction from the podium would have been of assistance, and tempi were not rigorously maintained in the first movement, where a sense of relentlessness is imperative. Once more the horns (different players from in the Turnage) bayed impressively at the opening, but in the more thickly scored passages a more judicious balance was required since, at times, the strings were all but overwhelmed.
The gentler atmosphere of the second movement was sensitively projected, with some outstanding harp playing (Deian Rowlands) whose ripples and gentle flourishes provide a backdrop to some of Tippett’s most beautiful and lyrical writing. Here, the strings came into their own with playing ofconcentration and refinement. The technical hurdles of the final two movements were not so easily overcome, with the third movement not taken at the given ’Presto veloce’ and feeling edgy and insecure. In the Finale, the nobility of the solo trumpet was commendable, but textures and balances needed more careful attention.
Whatever reservations one may have had about the performances and repertoire, the skill of the young musicians was evident, and their ability to tackle the demanding pieces on this programme compelled admiration.