War and Innocence

Three Folk Songs from the Csik District (arr. ?)
Finzi arr. Howard Ferguson
Vaughan Williams
Ten Blake Songs (seven performed)
Ravel arr. Emily Pailthorpe
Le Tombeau de Couperin (Three movements: Prélude, Menuet & Rigaudon)
War’s Embers [world premiere]
Temporal Variations

Emily Pailthorpe (oboe)

Julian Milford (piano)

James Gilchrist (tenor)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 8 June, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The concert was given in aid of “Save the Children”, helping vulnerable children in northern Iraq – and dedicated to the memory of Michael Pailthorpe (1931-1994).

Compiling the programme was clearly a labour of love for Emily Pailthorpe and her husband David. Their chosen theme declared that innocence “can never be far from war because the experience of war is in itself the loss of innocence.”

In their view, the Bartók and Vaughan Williams pieces express a pastoral innocence; those by Finzi and Ravel depict the “deep loss which pervades war’s aftermath”; and those by Korth and Britten portray the pain and brutality of war.

The Bartók is an early work, originally for solo piano. The arranger for oboe was not credited. The piano is now made retiring and modest; therefore Emily Pailthorpe had the opportunity in the more-hectic folksongs to display command over cascades of notes. The slower one had an angular poignancy.

I found Vaughan Williams’s pastoral contribution problematic. The Blake texts are great poems by a Londoner. Can music add to their stature? Are they pastoral? An oboe accompanies the singer. Certainly Vaughan Williams treats the texts in a pastoral manner. Was this wise?

It did not help that James Gilchrist’s voice took some time to settle in. At first he was nervy and strained; then he found a cathedral-choir style. Furthermore, Emily Pailthorpe’s playing, though mellifluous, was loud – interesting and intervening in its assertiveness. I toyed with the notion of a wordless duo giving better representation to VW’s muse.

To my great surprise, Gerald Finzi’s Interlude gripped me. I am not a great fan of ‘English’ music, but I was thoroughly engaged by this. Pailthorpe and Julian Milford were precisely abreast of the idiom, playing slightly unexpected intervals with just the right degree of emphasis – not smoothed away to blandness nor over-emphasised to sound more modern than the composer intended. High-grade performance of ‘English’ music requires much more wistful care and keenly felt understated attention than it usually receives. It is seen as ‘native’ and therefore ‘easy’ to interpret. The three climaxes in this piece were sudden autumnal flurries stirring the fallen, copper-golden leaves and then subsiding. Perfect – and, I allowed myself to recognise proudly, so English!

The Ravel, as arranged, was disappointing. Unfortunately, neither player conveyed the French idiom – or the particular voice of Ravel. I heard a lot of notes, but no style, no steel, no refinement, no grace – and none of Ravel’s remembrance for his dead military friends.

Each song in Nicholas Korth’s War’s Embers began as a rumbling growl. Thereafter, a vocal line developed – serious and austerely melodic. James Gilchrist came into his own here. His voice sounded more relaxed – attuned to the neutral, angular writing. Despite this premiere, he sounded as though he had been singing Ivor Gurney’s words for longer than he could remember.

The song-cycle seemed worth hearing again. So too Paul Patterson’s Duologue – a lively, sophisticated piece, played smartly, with some wit, but less swing or syncopation than the programme note anticipated.

Britten’s Temporal Variations, dismissed as “a triviality” by The Times in 1936 (its first performance was in the Wigmore Hall) was, in places, another growl – something of a lithe, fleeting drum-roll of a growl. The variations are short and abrupt, proceeding from March to Polka via Commination without fuss or ado. Gruff and impressive it was – and played with tough, robust commitment.

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