Heaven is Shy of Earth

Heaven is Shy of Earth [BBC commission: world premiere]
Daphnis et Chloë

Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

With one CD devoted to his music just released on the Ondine label, and another due imminently from NMC, the premiere of a work by Julian Anderson comes at a time of increased profile for a composer whose response to the legacy of post-war Modernism has been among the most distinctive in British music of the past fifteen years.

“Heaven is Shy of Earth” has the additional interest of being his first major work for chorus and orchestra: a medium central to the creativity of an earlier era, but which has arguably been more of a hindrance than help to British composers during the last half-century. And, in choosing to set fragments from the High Mass alongside excerpts from Psalm 84 and a poem by Emily Dickinson, Anderson has chosen the potentially hazardous course of bringing his texts into meaningful accord without neglecting the need for unity – whether formal or expressive – across the whole.

The composer has likened his work to the tradition of ‘secular masses’ exemplified by Janáček and Martinů, and the former is evoked by an instrumental ‘Intrada’ – dominated by the haunting timbre of flugelhorn – that opens the work. There follows a plangent ‘Kyrie’, chorus and solo mezzo trading words in a mood of urgent supplication, then the latter is allotted the psalm text in a lyrically intense ‘Quam dilecta tabernacula tua’. The ensuing ‘Sanctus’ is the most elaborate movement: the Latin text framing the Dickinson poem “Heaven is Shy of Earth” – typical in its homespun transcendence – in an interaction of the universal and personal almost too well subsumed by the consistency of Anderson’s idiom. As if to underline the need for such relative understatement, the concluding ‘Agnus Dei’ duly crystallises the overall musical process with its resonant though understated sense of apotheosis.

There is much to take in over the 32-minute course of this piece, and it will need further hearings to decide whether it succeeds more as an arresting concept than a fully-rounded aesthetic statement. What was certain here was the dedication both of Angelika Kirchschlager and the BBC Symphony Chorus in realising Anderson’s often-testing but always idiomatic-sounding vocal writing, as also that of Andrew Davis (second only to Oliver Knussen in his championing of Anderson’s music) in inspiring the BBC Symphony Orchestra to some of its most committed playing this season; so enabling the music’s harmonic richness to register even in the expanses of the Royal Albert Hall acoustic. Whether or not it goes down as one of the finest Proms commissions of recent seasons, “Heaven is Shy of Earth” is sure to remain one of its most ambitious: a work decidedly, though never modishly, of the present.

From ‘secular mass’ to ‘choreographic symphony’ is perhaps not so great a step. Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony have given numerous performances of Daphnis et Chloë over the years: this was by no means the most involving, but it did bring out the formal consistency in Ravel’s classically inspiredfresco. Thus the set-piece dances may have sounded more elegant, but the ‘Prelude’ lacked nothing in atmospheric intensity, and cumulative control was such that the ballet’s final third (the Second Suite by which the work was for long best known) unfolded in a single sweep. Some fine solo contributions – notably Michael Cox’s flute-playing during the treacherous mime scene prior to the final dance – were balanced by orchestral and choral responsiveness as a whole. Not a revelatory reading, then, but one to reaffirm that Ravel’s standing as a musical ‘clockmaker’ extends to the most ambitious designs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content