The House that Jack Built … Scenes from Comus

Violin Concerto in D, K211
The House that Jack Built [BBC commission: world premiere]
Hugh Wood
Scenes from Comus
La mer – three symphonic sketches

James Ehnes (violin)

Susan Gritton (soprano) & Daniel Norman (tenor)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 March, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

That first-on James Ehnes transcended an impressive new piece and an important revival says much for this young Canadian violinist. Sweet-toned and expressive, Ehnes appears too nonchalant. The ear suggests otherwise – here is a violinist with personality and heart whose playing is variegated, poised and meticulous, but not precious. A bit of muscle and poetic intensity brought welcome contrasts within the overall civility. The slow movement was especially compelling in its radiance. Ehnes is an intuitive and natural player who seems destined to be at the very top. He will get there without artifice or hype.

La mer was at its best in ’Play of the waves’ where instrumental dexterity was a delight. The outer movements, although admirable in clarity, were a tad hard-pressed and lacked evocation. Had Davis refined textures even more and suggested something beyond the water’s surface, this remarkable score would have been done greater justice. The ad lib brass fanfares in the finale – removed by Debussy, re-instated by Ansermet – were not played … but one’s inner ear hears them anyway.

Brian Elias’s response to a BBC commission is an intriguing piece, one that reflects his fascination with children’s games, their rhymes and rituals. In this very confident first performance the work’s twists and turns, rhythmic panache and skilful use of a large orchestra was vividly presented. At 21 minutes, The House that Jack Built may be described as an extended scherzo, one that stylistically reminds in places of Nicholas Maw and Humphrey Searle (the latter one of Elias’s teachers). The music’s deviations mirror the way one game can suddenly stop and another begins.

Musical motifs ape playground chants, the composer an observer of children at play. There is no programme and, initially, gestures can seem (appropriately) naïve, while others appear irreverent or over-dominant. There’s also an element of skittishness – some plucking reminded of ’Playful Pizzicato’ from Britten’s Simple Symphony. What seems discursive is soon interwoven into tight-meshed rhythmic and colourful energy; this becomes more and more absorbing in its deft interaction until phrasal repetition and addition marks a new departure … to an unexpected ending. This is music demanding to be heard again.

So too Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus, commissioned by the BBC and premiered at the 1965 Proms. William Burden being indisposed, there could have been no better replacement than Daniel Norman who has recorded Scenes from Comus with Andrew Davis and the BBCSO for NMC (a CD which includes Wood’s masterly Symphony premiered not, as Wood’s programme profile suggested, by Davis but by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky).

Setting part of John Milton’s masque, “Comus”, Wood’s fragmentary use of the text places the emphasis on the orchestra to carry and develop the narrative – a rarefied spirit protecting a lady separated from her brothers on a journey through an untamed forest. Comus kidnaps her and an orgy ensues.

Wood’s music is rich and eloquent. His compositional rigour does not restrict the potential for ambient image-creation or drama; indeed ’Scenes’ pulsates with dynamic rhythmic development and long, enchanted melodic lines. Wood’s word-setting is of an elevated order; both soloists were heroic in meeting his high-lying and ecstatic demands, syllabic stress and musical expression consummated.

In Hugh Wood’s 70th-birthday year, Scenes from Comus, in this superb performance, emerged as a masterpiece.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content