A Song of Summer

A Song of Summer
Triple Concerto
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.5 in D

Daniel Hope (violin), Philip Dukes (viola) & Christian Poltéra (cello)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

An evening of ‘Proms Firsts’ – all three works were given their world premieres at the Proms – and an evening of British music into the bargain. Nominally Delius’s last purely orchestral score (though derived from an unfinished project of a decade earlier), A Song of Summer (1929) is among the numerous pieces written with Eric Fenby, Delius’s amanuensis, that were greeted enthusiastically when they appeared – as if in gratitude that the infirm composer was again able to create – only later to be compared unfavourably with those preceding them. If the work adds little that is new to Delius’s legacy, its musical qualities are undoubted; as, moreover, is its formal subtlety: the two main, increasingly expansive, sections emerging with deceptive ease from an introduction that, though added at a late stage in the compositional process, sets out salient themes with an inevitability to suggest the piece could never have been otherwise. Warmly but alertly directed by Sir Andrew Davis, it confirmed Delius’s late works as being urgently in need of reappraisal.

As are those by Sir Michael Tippett – the music from his last quarter-century having been subjected to a critical mauling on his centenary two years ago. At the time of its premiere, the Triple Concerto (1979) was hailed as a return to the ‘ecstatic lyricism’ that, having been gleaned in the final pages of the Fourth Quartet, was now being given its head. Yet the rigorous formal procedures that Tippett evolved in the wake of his opera “King Priam” are not abandoned – witness the Triple Concerto’s opening movement’s ingenious conflation of fantasia and sonata processes, or the slow movement’s heightening of emotional intensity throughthe telling juxtaposition of its melodic ideas rather than motivic development as such. With its quirky take on rondo form, the finale still feels too short-winded to fulfil its role in the overall design, for all that Tippett brings back the work’s initial themes so as to make possible a satisfying apotheosis.

One aspect of the Triple Concerto that has divided opinion is the degree to which the three soloists can successfully integrate without obscuring each other’s persona. This was not quite overcome in this performance, in which initial problems of intonation were also apparent, but it did not seriously impede the players’ commitment. Daniel Hope led the way (almost too much so at times) with his flights of fancy, Philip Dukes ensured that the viola line was not subsumed in the overall texture, and Christian Poltéra overcame initial reticence to give an idiomatic and sensitive account of the cello part. Davis drove the work hard, without neglecting to characterise the brief but strategic orchestral interludes, and ensuring that the slow movement – the soloists as one over a luminous texture of tuned percussion – worked its mesmeric spell. A timely and, overall, successful revival.

Many British works have enjoyed widespread initial success, only to fall from favour as their time – or, indeed, their composer – passes. While Vaughan Williams’s output has not been immune to this, his Fifth Symphony (1943) has never left the repertoire and must latterly has enjoyed almost as many performances as in its first decade. What now strikes one is the sheer audacity of writing such music in the midst of war: a piece that is neither a reflection of nor an escape from its era, but which transcends circumstance towards a far-removed yet still attainable goal; one definition of the ‘visionary’ epithet often attached to this composer’s music in general and this work in particular.

Among the most sympathetic latter-day exponents of Vaughan Williams, Andrew Davis steered a secure and convincing course. In the ‘Preludio’, more could perhaps have been made of the contrasts between modal and diatonic themes (the latter opening-up tonal vistas that will be secured only later in the work), and the climax felt just a shade underwhelming. The ‘Scherzo’, deftly dispatched, lacked the last degree of mystery – though it was hardly the fault of the performance that audience concentration was not all it should have been. Others have drawn greater expressive gravitas from the ‘Romanza’, but Davis’s shaping of its themes on the way to a climax of great strength was never less than complete. The ‘Passacaglia’ finale can seem lightweight in comparison: here its carefree initial progress and troubled continuation – as themes from the first movement re-emerge – were fused with a cumulative momentum, enabling the coda to round off the work in a mood of serene repose.

Inasmuch as it underlined enduring certainties at a time when these were directly under threat, this was demonstrably a symphony of and for its time. Now, in an era when such certainties might seem doubtful or even obsolete, its calm reaffirmation of them arguably makes it more relevant than ever.

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