Michael Berkeley Premiere / A London Symphony

Michael Berkeley
Concerto for Orchestra [BBC commission: world premiere]
Quatre chansons françaises
Vaughan Williams
A London Symphony (Symphony No.2) [Original Version]

Susan Gritton (soprano)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Michael Berkeley has written a score that is more a symphony than a concerto. Although there is much variety of timbre in the virtuoso passages, there is also an overriding clarity of means and a delightful craft that concerns the development of ideas; this is also music of awareness. Over 25 minutes, in three equal-length movements, Berkeley has created a work that, from its arresting opening to its emphatic if not optimistic conclusion, grabs the attention through invention rather than display. After a fast-slow-fast opening movement, its sections thoughtfully dovetailed, the heart of the piece is ‘Threnody for a Sad Trumpet’, music that became a memorial to those that perished in the Christmas-time (2004) tsunami. Eerie and fragile, almost static, it is the solo, standing trumpeter, Philippe Schartz, who carries expressive emotions, somewhat ‘blues’-sounding and, for all the attention visually drawn to the soloist, a real listening experience. With the finale some doubts arise. Again, fast-slow-fast, the connections with the first movement are obvious, yet there seems a struggle, maybe deliberate, that seems (on a first hearing) structurally disjointed. The arrival of the organ is a powerful moment, and the ‘slow’ section is compelling on its own terms – but another hearing is needed to get inside the structure. And it’s music one wants to hear again. Chandos already has it scheduled for the ongoing Lennox and Michael Berkeley series.

And to hear the Britten again … a remarkable achievement for a 14-year-old, settings of Hugo and Verlaine (two poems each), and music one recalls as exquisite and not sought out often enough. How easily (too easily?) Britten suggests himself as a French composer, and as someone who knew his Puccini and Wagner, and displaying alertness to musical ‘developments’ abroad. Atmospheric and image-creating, each song is a gem of rapturous ideas and imaginative orchestration; this languorous account found Susan Gritton in ravishing voice.

In his programme note for Concerto for Orchestra, Michael Berkeley alludes to ideas not being a problem. Vaughan Williams may well have agreed with him. A London Symphony, in its original 1913 version, has no lack of innovation. Yet there is too much that is sectional and repetitive to sustain an hour-long piece designated ‘symphony’. Of course, for enthusiasts of this wonderful work, the opportunity to hear the composer’s once-thought-lost original, is a terrific opportunity, and Richard Hickox’s LSO recording for Chandos (CHAN 9902) has already provided permanence for Vaughan Williams’s sprawling creation. But the composer had doubts about the length and some of the material and made three revisions. The version from 1933 is the one always played; and in almost every particular those sections dropped by Vaughan Williams seem justified, so too his general tidying and trimming, although one regrets losing some of the ‘effects’ in the second movement.

The first movement was never revised – no need to, it’s magnificent and Hickox and his orchestra did it full justice (now with appropriate antiphonal violins; the violas had been outside-right in the first half), not least in the mysterious opening, the light and tripping way with the ‘folk’ material, and the pastoral middle section. After this, it’s intriguing to hear the music Vaughan Williams cut and altered, and this ‘live’ journey was a compelling one not least for agreeing with the composer at just about every decision he later took. At 64 minutes (Hickox adding three to his recording) there were times when this ‘symphony’ seemed frustratingly protracted, yet there was no doubt about this ‘believing’ and committed performance, the Royal Albert Hall adding a glow to the sound that was wholly in accord.

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