Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra

Street Corner
En Saga
Jeu de cartes
Symphony No.5, Op.50

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Butcher

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 3 July, 2004
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London

There’s something about a good amateur performance, whether it’s the real sense of occasion that comes from performing less often or the obvious enthusiasm of the players that a professional life can sometimes stifle, which is often missing from more ‘polished’ performances. Of course, the same levels of interpretation exist, from merely ‘playing the notes’ to a performance which arises from a depth of understanding and experience. Happily, on this occasion, the latter was the case.

Tackling ‘big works’, as the Westminster Philharmonic under its conductor Jonathan Butcher has so often done, does not necessarily equate with tackling ‘big issues’. Through this elegantly constructed programme, Butcher and his orchestra took us from a picture of urban vitality with Alan Rawsthorne’s Street Corner, through the depths of the unconscious made manifest in Sibelius’s En Saga, on to the abstract conflict which results when civilisation does not adequately address the needs of the unconscious (Stravinsky), and ending in the cataclysmic, though ultimately triumphant, vision of modern warfare and its consequences in Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony.

Rawsthorne, who today is probably best remembered for his numerous film scores, “The Cruel Sea” for example, was also a composer of some fine concert music, including symphonies, a ballet and concertos (of which those for piano have recently received a fine recording on Naxos. Street Corner (1944) is an aural portrait of bustling city life; typical of English music of the time, it needs a vigorous approach without letting the sometimes-overblown orchestration to dominate. Right from its rather stentorian opening, Butcher conducted the work with verve, assurance, good humour and definition. The orchestra responded well as a unit, though it quickly became apparent that St John’s is perhaps a little small for an orchestra of this size, the tutti sections somewhat muddy at times.

Inspired by Norse myth and legend, Sibelius’s orchestral palette in En Saga is here punctuated by wonderful effects: dark themes swimming below transparent string textures, a luminous first climax and enormous blocks of harmony striding like giants across a mystical landscape. Butcher brought out the central areas of tension to great effect, with effectively contrasting solo work by Alison Downie (clarinet), Julie Walker (viola) and oboists Jasmine Huxtable-Wright and Anne Westropp.

Stravinsky’s ballet Jeu de Cartes (A Game of Cards) is a surreal Lewis-Carroll-like work organised into three sections (or Hands) wherein the dancers, dressed as the four suits (cards in a game of poker), do battle, assisted and retarded, by turns, by the mischievous Joker. Being firmly of Stravinsky’s neo-classical phase (and what we would see today as being thoroughly post-modern) Jeu de cartes would have benefited from a leaner, dryer sound and sharper attacks on the beat than was heard here. Still, it was a performance full of character, with the mock-overture prefacing each ‘Hand’ given sufficiently contrasting weight.

Stravinsky’s exploration of the struggle between good (order) and evil (chaos) formed a fitting bridge to Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony of 1922, a personal response to conflict both on a monumental level (the Great War, previously adumbrated in his Fourth Symphony ‘Inextinguishable’ of 1916, was obviously unfinished business) and on a personal one (his professional and domestic life had up until this point been in a constant state of flux). This is a ‘big work’ dealing with ‘big issues’. Jonathan Butcher seemed absolutely convinced of his conception of the piece, and set to work convincing us with a very powerful reading indeed.

Falling into two movements, the first subdivided into two and the second into four sections, it is tempting to take the reductive approach and render the work as a series of binary oppositions. But the richness of the score, with its fluctuations of tension over a broad spectrum, its distribution of motifs and themes in differing contexts, the use of a side drum with its menacing interjections passim, and the fugues of the second movement hurtling towards a glorious climax, deny this possibility. Rather, the danger is on the other side: to fragment, to lean towards episodic treatment.

Butcher trod skilfully between the two extremes: the architecture of the work was readily apparent, the contained chaos an inferno in a perfectly proportioned kiln. And thanks to some inspired playing, the resulting piece of work, glazed and fired, was for our understanding and admiration.

If you haven’t already heard this fine orchestra, I strongly urge you to do so.

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