Visions and Journeys

Visions and Journeys
Debussy, orch. Adams
Le livre de Baudelaire
In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50

Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Yan Pascal Tortelier

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 December, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The widespread success of Anthony Payne’s elaboration of the sketches for Elgar’s Third Symphony has undoubtedly helped raise his profile, though not necessarily that of his own music. So it was good to find the BBC Symphony Orchestra reviving his most recent major orchestral work, Visions and Journeys (premiered at Proms 2002) and a summation (so far) of an idiom both personal and stylistically wide-ranging.

Although the title can be interpreted literally (Payne has cited trips to and between the Scilly Islands as inspiration) and metaphorically (the concept of a tonal process fulfilling these epithets separately and together), Visions and Journeys (2002) is essentially an abstract exploration of several pithy and distinctive motifs heard near the outset. How they evolve, and the means by which they give rise to an overriding momentum, is the point and purpose of the piece. The journey is rich and engrossing, made more so by Payne’s unforced use of a tonal underpinning to focus the music’s unfolding. Drawing on the rhapsodic follow-through of his Spirit’s Harvest (1985) and the schematic format of Time’s Arrow (1990), Visions and Journeys unites the abstract and descriptive tendencies familiar in British music from Parry onwards, with a mastery that compels admiration. A first-rate performance too – Yan Pascal Tortelier identifying tension and release with commendable sureness, and obtaining persuasive playing from the BBCSO. Mention of the earlier BBC premieres reminds one that Payne’s 70th birthday falls in 2006, and a CD of all three of Payne’s ‘symphonies would be appropriate commemoration. NMC, having already recorded Time’s Arrow, would seem the best bet.

The remainder of the concert was not on this level of achievement, though – in the vocal items, at least – this was no fault of Susan Graham, who sang with poise and understanding, not to mention idiomatic-sounding French. But “Shéhérazade” was prodded and nudged to an irritating degree – with the expansive “Asie” harried so that its depictions of mood and place seemed generalised, and its surging climax going for little. The shorter numbers were more evenly paced – with some enchanting flute playing in the first of them.

John Adams has made translucent orchestrations to the first four of Debussy’s “Le livre de Baudelaire”, cushioning the voice in an attractive but rarely insightful manner. The lengthily expressed rapture of “Le balcon” feels enervated when heard like this, while the element of caprice in “Le jet d’eau” was effectively smoothed out. Graham was masterly in her nuancing of the vocal line: one looks forward to hearing her in these songs, with piano accompaniment, in a future London recital.

The evening ended with an account of Elgar’s In the South that had character but precious little in the way of overall coherence, and which was roughly played to say the least. Best were the illustrative passages interpolated in this overture-cum-tone poem: the implacable ‘Roman legion’ episode, and the evocative ‘Cantore populare’, limpidly rendered. The rumbustious outer sections, stiffly phrased, lacked any real expressive license or dynamic charge – without which, Elgar’s encapsulation of the Italian spirit sounded unimaginatively foursquare. Tortelier looked to be enjoying himself hugely and, indeed, this was often enjoyable music-making ‘in situ’ – though hardly a performance to remember.

Visions and Journeys was the winner of the BBC Radio 3 Listeners Award in 2003’s British Composer Awards. This year’s presentations took place at the Ironmongers’ Hall prior to this concert. Especial congratulations to Simon Holt: winner of the Stage Works category, Richard Causton: winner of the Solo and Duo category, and Julian Anderson: winner of the Orchestral category – all with works that amply deserve repeated hearings and performances.

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