Symphonies of Wind Instruments [original version]
cummings ist der Dichter
The dove descending
Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine
Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 30 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The original version of 1920 – as opposed to the 1947 revision – of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments opened this most interesting and generally well-performed concert.
Written in memory of Debussy, Stravinsky’s piece falls into distinctive sections, each particularly characterised, whether by timbre, tempo or rhythm. The opening, piquant clarinet cries were plangent, though some answering chords from the whole ensemble were less than unanimous. The gentler woodwind passages, featuring the alto flute that Stravinsky dispensed with in his revision, with their reminiscences of The Rite ofSpring, were played with care and sensitivity. If the whole lacked ultimate polish – and, in the climactic faster sections, wanting in sheer panache – this was a considered reading, and the decision to give the composer’s first version an imaginative one even if, as a general rule, a composer’s revisions are invariably for the better.
The revised version of Pierre Boulez’s “cummings is der Dichter” followed. This extraordinary setting of a typographically peculiar verse typical of e.e. cummings is taxing for singers and players, but this performance managed to convey the exuberance as well as the more ruminative qualities of Boulez’s writing. The subject matter is birds – this is the first word of the poem – though quite what they are doing is difficult to determine from the obscurity of the text. Boulez, though, provides some surprisingly illustrative touches, such as the aviary-like fluttering of flutes towards the close, even though for much of the time the actual words areindecipherable. The assurance of the BBC Singers was highly impressive – their security of pitch and delivery of difficult lines with ease are characteristics of this group – and the orchestra was comparably convincing.
Four short a cappella pieces by Stravinsky followed. The brief anthem to words by T.S. Eliot, with its intertwining of a 12-note row is by no means easy – quite how Stravinsky thought this piece might have been suitable for inclusion in a hymnal is perplexing to say the least.
The composer revised his Three sacred Slavonic choruses for use in Latin, but retained a preference for these, his first thoughts, given here in Russian. “Our Father” and “Blessed Virgin” are imbued with the Orthodox spirit, with chant-like chords, whilst the setting of the “Creed” is rather more propulsive, with rhythmic and metrical writing more quintessential of the composer.
I suppose one would expect a large Slavic chorus to sing these in an ‘authentic’ manner, but the reliability of the BBC Singers enabled one to appreciate the subtleties of the settings, not least harmonically.
There is a sense of liberation about Messiaen’s “Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine”, as well there might be given that this was one of the first major works he produced following repatriation from wartime incarceration in Poland. Its first performance in 1945 was not received well – the composer’s own highly charged texts coming under particular fire – but it is one of the most open-hearted and, in places, ebullient works he wrote.
The chorus sings in unison most of the time – triadic harmony being reserved for key moments – and, once more, the ladies of the BBC Singers were in confident form. Only a few very high phrases in the third piece sounded a trifle strained. Elsewhere, whether in the rapt prayerfulness of the first movement, or in the rhythmic adrenaline-rush of the second, they were fully responsive to the composer’s demands.
Likewise, the strings and percussion of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, surely guided by David Robertson, were at home in Messiaen’s colourful soundworld. Adding their distinctive contributions to the palette were Nicolas Hodges and Cynthia Millar, both attentive to the particulars of the composer’s requirements. From my seat, I would like to have heardmore of the swoops and slides from Millar’s instrument, admirable though the general balance was overall.
- BBC Proms 2005
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