Symphony ‘Edward II’ [London premiere]
Prokofiev, arr. Philip Ellis
Romeo and Juliet – Concert Scenario
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 20 October, 2009
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
Perhaps because he chooses not to number them, John McCabe’s seven (so far) symphonies have not achieved the prominence they merit: his ‘Fifth’ was only now receiving its London premiere, some 12 years after its completion. The title makes clear its derivation from the evening-length ballet, Edward II, so placing it in a notable lineage of twentieth-century symphonies derived from dramatic sources (Prokofiev’s Third and Fourth symphonies only the most obvious antecedents). McCabe thereby achieves a viable balance between reflecting the inherently descriptive nature of the music and the need to render it within a necessarily abstract context.
Evoking the adolescence and early promise of its subject, framed by sombre music associated with the demise of his father then the coming of civil war, the first movement unfolds as a fantasia-like structure with a powerfully cumulative momentum. An atmospheric but hardly serene ‘Romanza’ pointedly contrasts music associated with the two ‘loves’ of his life, Piers Gaveston and Queen Isabella – the latter in her association with Mortimer; his threat to the king intensified in the pugnacious ‘The Barons’ scherzo for wind and percussion that follows. The lengthy finale then focuses on music depicting the overthrow, imprisonment and funeral of the king, in music that might be felt too discursive for symphonic treatment were it not for the skill with which the composer has dovetailed his material so as to achieve an inevitability of formal follow-through.
With its evocation of such figures as Hindemith, Arnold and Panufnik, the Edward II Symphony is an overtly eclectic score, though McCabe has long been a composer able to wrest a personal expression from the presence of others. Certainly the piece made a vivid impression on this occasion, the occasional rough-edges being far outweighed by the energy and sheer sense of drama that the Salomon Orchestra produced in response to Philip Ellis’s incisive direction. Hopefully it will not have to wait so long for a further live airing in the capital.
A telling juxtaposition saw the second half devoted to Prokofiev’s music for the ballet of Romeo and Juliet – here in Ellis’s “concert scenario” which, if hardly symphonic as such, found a viable solution to the presenting of a cohesive overview of the narrative while also avoiding the piecemeal impression made when a selection from the Suites is given. Almost all of the crucial numbers were here, along with several of those which provide a necessary context as well as being appealing in their own right. Again, the Salomon’s playing made up for in conviction what it lacked in finesse (though Prokofiev’s string-writing is such as to test the most illustrious orchestras) and, at just on an hour, this abridgement deserves to find favour in concert halls the world over.