City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra|Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – Symphonies by Ruth Gipps, Thomas Adès and Johannes Brahms

Symphony No.2 in B, Op.30

The Exterminating Angel Symphony

Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90

City of Brimingham Symphony Orchestra
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 5 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Three Symphonies in this programme, separated in time by approximately equal periods, and very different in style and form. The first was Ruth Gipps’s single movement Symphony No. 2, receiving its first Proms performance here by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – the ensemble which gave its premiere in 1946. It is a Wartime composition inasmuch as Gipps unofficially linked it to her life, as a woman, in London before and after the conflict, during which time her husband was called away to fight. As it was written for the victory celebrations at the end of the War, however, it presents a somewhat sanitised view of it, not being riven with any particularly tumultuous, cataclysmic passages to depict the violence itself, but expressing more of an emotional response perhaps.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla launched an expansive, atmospheric account of the work, imbued with the Romantic glow of the brass, both at the outset and subsequently, with the battery of four percussionists plus timpanist adding considerable force. As a protege of Vaughan Williams, Gipps’s Symphony has echoes of his style – modal melodies, a jaunty (if not very threatening) march evoking the soldiers, a certain gentle melancholy – all sympathetically brought out by the CBSO. But that did not dispel the impression of a work lacking in sharper structural and thematic contrasts, and that really there is a tauter, more succinct tone poem lying underneath, rather than a full-blown Symphony.

The four movements of Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel Symphony (2020) – working-up material from his opera of 2016 – are clearly etched with a distinct character, and symphonically integrated by means of a musical figure which symbolises the enchanted and enchanting angel of death, as well as satirising the empty, spoken pleasantry “enchanted” which the guests at a dinner party might babble to each other on being introduced. The programme notes argued that the result is a symphony rather than a suite, but there is still a sense of the latter, as the movements all imply some choreography or dance.

The CBSO’s dynamic performance brought out the foreboding, urgent character of the music, from the nervous, interlocking motifs of Entrances (based on the form of a chaconne); the March’s monolithic chords (like the ‘Statue’ theme of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, but swirling around without development); the wistful woodwind and horns of the Berceuse which (deliberately?) echoed the example at the end of Stravinsky’s The Firebird; and the delirious, disjointed way with the Waltz of the finale, which evoked a dysfunctional, despondent version of the frenzy of Ravel’s Valses. The startling, rude power of this performance certainly left an exhilarating feeling of claustrophobia and desperation as the characters face defeat and death.

After that searing performance, Gražinytė-Tyla’s interpretation of Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 was disappointing, following the fashion for lean, pared down renditions of this composer without making any particular and ultimately satisfying insights of its own. The first movement harboured some degree of purpose by virtue of its relatively brisk tempo, but it lacked brio (as per Brahms’s marking) and so seemed too polite. The start of the exposition repeat sounded as though it was a surprise to the orchestra, even if it then proceeded with a touch more force than first time round. Some tension was generated by the woodwind’s winsome murmuring of the second theme, as well as by the tantalisingly reticent account of third movement’s Trio section, and the quiet moodiness of the opening passage of the finale.

But too often the performance lacked focus and direction – the first movement’s development merely meandering; the dreamy Andante nearly coming to a halt at times; the languid principal melody of the third movement, only given lift by the eccentric leaning-in to its little dotted figure; and the heft noticeably missing from the thrusting, restless passages of the finale. Those reserved contrasts might have told for something in a more ordinary symphony, had it gone with more powerful sections elsewhere. But they fatally undermined the novelty and genius of this Symphony that ends quietly in a mood of resignation, even renunciation (pre-empted by hushed endings to all the preceding movements) and which only works in making its impact, therefore, if there has been a proper dialectical tussle beforehand, to end in this cathartic dissolution. That failed to happen – and was not helped by some idiot shouting “bravo” – proving a limp conclusion to the well-characterised first-half of this concert.

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