Night Ride and Sunrise … Gaudete … Enigma Variations

Night Ride and Sunrise, Op.55
Michael Berkeley
Slow Dawn [World premiere of new version]
Gaudete [BBC commission: World premiere]
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Susanna Andersson (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 August, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Edward GardnerEdward Gardner here returned to the BBC Symphony Orchestra for an enterprising programme.

Among the more elusive of Sibelius’s tone poems, Night Ride and Sunrise (1907) is never an easy piece to make cohere, but this was hardly apparent in a performance that brought its contrasting halves into persuasive accord – brooding mystery eliding into fervent wonder with due inevitability. In particular, the seemingly disconnected gestures of the ‘sunrise’ portion were almost perfectly placed – abetted by playing and conducting of a high order.

Following such a masterpiece is not easy. That unenviable task here fell to Michael Berkeley and the premiere of the orchestral version of his Slow Dawn – originally composed three years ago for wind-band as a memorial to the son of conductor and horn-player Timothy Reynish. A context which no-doubt explains why the woodwind and brass had most of the thematic interest, with the strings tending to provide more in the way of a textural enrichment. Fateful drum strokes immediately denote the nature of this piece, returning both at its climax and towards the close, though there is sufficient variety of mood and pace to sustain the 11-minute whole. Plangently realised here, it left a not inconsiderable impression – even though a more personal idiom remained as indistinct as ever.

What soon became clear is that Michael Berkeley in his 60th-year has nothing like the force and consistency of vision of Stuart MacRae in his 32nd in the premiere of a major vocal work. Less a song-cycle than a scena for soprano and orchestra, in “Gaudete” (2008) MacRae sets extracts (primarily from the ‘Epilogue’) from one of Ted Hughes’s most densely allusive collections: one that appears to revolve around the relationship of Man to God and to Nature, though that relationship is a necessarily oblique one.

Susanna AnderssonMacRae has fashioned them into a 28-minute work in several sections: how these unfold and how they coalesce is likely as much to do with the emphasis of the performance as with the intention of the composer; though this is not to deny the work’s underlying conviction, or that the final three stanzas constitute an epilogue of uncommon subtlety and evocative beauty. This a work, moreover, that makes exceptional demands on the singer’s stamina and there can be no doubt that Susanna Andersson’s contribution went a long way to making the performance a success. The frequent passages of coloratura were given with impressive accuracy, while her projection of the words afforded more clarity than might have been expected – though the textural and harmonic spacing suggested that the composer had considered this problem at some length. The outcome was a powerful rendering of a work whose ambition requires, and deserves, further hearings. It certainly reaffirmed MacRae among the most distinctive composers of his generation.

After this, Elgar’s Enigma Variations (1899) might easily have seemed a recourse to the tried and trusted, but Gardner ensured that there was nothing routine about this performance. Admittedly it took time to get going: the Theme itself was a little too circumspect, while the first Variation lacked the pathos expected in its depiction of the composer’s wife. Thereafter, the faster variations were crisply and stylishly delineated, with the more reflective ones being neither over-wrought nor under- characterised. In particular, ‘Ysobel’ (VI) evinced an airy tenderness and ‘Nimrod’ (IX) was a model of gradually accumulating emotion, while the often overly ponderous Variation XII had just the right ruminative warmth and the mysteries of the ‘Romanza’ that succeeds it were made implicit without being unduly underlined. For the finale, Gardner rightly took advantage of the optional organ part – expanding without coarsening the grandeur or the affirmation of this apotheosis. A fine account, overall, and a concert deserving of a far higher attendance than was regrettably the case.

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