A Little Birthday Music

Maxwell Davies
A Little Birthday Music [BBC commission: world premiere]
Clarinet Concerto in A, K622
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Choristers of the Chapels Royal, St James’s Palace & Hampton Court Palace
City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus
Children’s International Voices of Enfield
Finchley Children’s Music Group
New London Children’s Choir
Southend Boys’ & Girls’ Choirs
Trinity Boys Choir

Fanfare Trumpeters of the Scots Guards

Julian Bliss (basset clarinet)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 19 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Happy Birthday Ma’am!

Four years ago the Queen came to the Proms during her Golden Jubilee celebrations and met some front-row Prommers. This year, in honour of her 80th-birthday, she was back and, ultimately, got a Prommers’ massed-choir version of “Happy Birthday to You” and three cheers, while the supremely annoying idiot, who loves to ruin the Last Night with his stupid flag-waving, inflatable-parrot raising, and infuriating klaxoning, made a rare appearance to wave the Royal Standard. (How he was able to pass the airport-like security I don’t know, and surely waving the Royal Standard is a treasonable offence, so why wasn’t he arrested? Tell him on the Last Night that he’s ruining it for everyone else and he will glare at you and look likely to burst: thus such self-appointed clowns betray their own interests – they couldn’t care less about the rest of us. He’s probably got his six tickets to secure his Last Night place now, so we won’t see him until 9 September. Would that he was prevented from coming then…)

Back to the Queen. Following Gordon Jacob’s arrangement of the National Anthem, and contrary to BBC1 viewers’ appreciation (the deferred TV relay inexplicably showed the Mozart Clarinet Concerto first), it was the BBC commission in honour of the Queen’s birthday that opened the show. With the colourful array of numerous children’s choirs in various attires (unfortunately neither the concert programme nor Alan Titchmarsh introducing the TV coverage gave a colour-coding for the choirs’ uniforms), one hoped for a musically colourful splash to match the organ-pipe effect of red-cassocked youngsters, in the middle at the front, the two Chapel Royal choirs.

Unfortunately, Peter Maxwell Davies’s “A Little Birthday Music” was rather sombre. The programme note referred to its being in sonata form with the usual sections, and it seemed to me to emulate a Mahlerian movement, with various mood-changes (all, admittedly, easily accomplished). Yet the choral final pages were a uniform and unison setting of Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s four stanzas of his birthday greeting “The Golden Rule”. Not an immediately ingratiating melody – chromatically rising for each stanza’s first line, then a similar fall on the second line – it actually turned out to be quite memorable and the whole work, after an orchestral coda, ended in an gorgeous major chord (allying itself again with the late Romantics). Yet I was disappointed that, with 250 young choristers at his disposal, there wasn’t anything more euphoric and rhythmic in Maxwell Davies’s vocal line.

I suspect – as an occasional piece – we will never hear it again. Lasting just over 12 minutes, its requirements of such large choral forces and ceremonial trumpeters, as well as full orchestra, will presumably be prohibitive for most promoters – and perhaps the muted style of work will mean that few will ever worry about trying.

Julian Bliss – in a revolutionary-red shirt – was a competent rather than inspiring soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. With hardly a glance at Jiří Bělohlávek, although nicely done, his playing was little more than routine: pleasant but lacking in any sort of character and, I daresay, any conception of the depths of the music. Bělohlávek, though, again proved he can be a Mozartean of distinction, with clean and detailed playing from the reduced forces of his BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The Queen, with Prince Philip, took the stage herself at the beginning of the concert’s second half. Once again, as Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies made the announcement of the recipient of the Queen’s Medal for Music. This time last year he informed a packed Royal Albert Hall that Sir Charles Mackerras was the first-ever recipient of the new award; this year – one better – the second award was presented in person by the Queen, to Bryn Terfel: a most popular and utterly deserved winner. By way of thanks he sang “My Little Welsh Home” (composed by Gwyn Williams and performed here in an arrangement by Chris Hazell) with effortless diction. While the harp was removed from the stage, the royal party made its way back to the royal box, and we were on the final straight.

Not surprisingly Bělohlávek was in his element (and score-less) in Dvořák’s final symphony and, a rather noticeable horn split-note in the finale, this was a performance of great gusto and attention to detail that worked well both in the hall and on the delayed television relay. I would have liked to savour Dvořák’s musical architecture without the interruption of applause between movements, and certainly not after the gentle ebbing away of the famous Largo, but Bělohlávek’s focus never swayed.

Because it is so familiar (this was its 87th Prom performance), we perhaps forget what a wonderful work the ‘New World’ Symphony is. Yes, it’s almost impossible to listen naively and forget every western film you’ve ever seen (it’s amazing how all such film scores seem to crib every style by Dvořák in this symphony), but this was a hugely satisfying performance that made up in its honesty and musicality for what turned out to be a rather lacklustre first half.

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