PCM 1: Fatuous Façade or No More Nonsense Please Edith

Proms Chamber Music at Lunchtime

Le jardinier de Samos

Prunella Scales & Samuel West (reciters)*

Martyn Brabbins conducting The Nash Ensemble:
Philippa Davies (flute)
Richard Hosford (clarinet)
Mark David (trumpet)
Martin Robertson (alto saxophone)
Marianne Thorsen (violin)
Paul Watkins (cello)
Simon Limbrick (percussion)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 22 July, 2002
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Jacques Ibert is one of those unsung composers. Apart from the wacky Divertissement, which was commissioned for the BBC Third Programme, and the saxophone concerto – both getting occasional airings – he is for most simply a name in the musical dictionary (Jean Françaix being another – are such composers predominantly French, I wonder?). So it was a delight to hear his incidental music for a proposed 1924 production of Charles Vildrac’s Le jardinier de Samos at the opening of the 2002 Lunchtime Proms.

As Christopher Cook informed in his spoken introduction, the first night was delayed by eight years, so Ibert fashioned this five-movement suite for flute, clarinet, trumpet, percussion, violin and cello. Martyn Brabbins was on hand to conduct the pieces that require more than two players; the central violin and cello duo he left, quite rightly, to Marianne Thorsen and Paul Watkins. A finale that alludes to a Spanish dance (whether or not for the plot, of which we were given no inkling) follows a very academic fugue.

If that slimmest of Spanish connections was the hook for the inclusion of the piece, no excuses were needed for the quality of the playing – it was the Nash Ensemble after all. But even with just six players, the V & A’s Lecture Theatre acoustic can become so easily saturated.

William Walton’s Façade comes from the same decade, and his exquisite music, pastiching every musical form known to man, matches Ibert in wit and panache. Apart from the indefatigable Lady Walton and Richard Baker touring the now all-too-few music clubs, this is a rare work in its original form. Despite the pluses of the family reciting-team of Prunella Scales – dapper in her flapper’s dress – and Samuel West, I began to see why.

The words are embarrassingly atrocious. Yes, of course they are meant to be nonsense, but a five-year-old coming out with such balderdash would be severely criticised by any dutiful teacher. Why then should we applaud Edith Sitwell, ostensibly an adult and privileged to the hilt, when she spouts such drivel? And not any old drivel – offensively racist drivel. How many references to blacks are there in the sixteen pages of squirmingly outrageous lyrics? And how could Walton have, with any conscience, set such irreducible tripe, let alone produce music of such genius?

While feeling rather too-uncomfortably akin to a collaborator, there was much to enjoy in this performance. With saxophonist Martin Robertson replacing Marianne Thorsen in the line-up the music positively crackled and sparkled, although in some of the mellower numbers Martyn Brabbins seemed to be too slow for the ease of either Scales or West.Both reciters were amplified and, although I assume the balance was better on the radio broadcast (I will find out on this Sunday’s repeat: 1 o’clock Radio 3), there were still passages that (perhaps blissfully so given my distaste of the words) were occluded by instruments. Prunella Scales’s sometimes monotone enunciation didn’t quite have enough variety to make for ease of listening, although Sam West had enough vocal power to ameliorate any such effect in his contribution. I would like to think they had the same qualms about what they were emoting as I had.

Couldn’t someone provide new words? Something about the Sitwells themselves, giving thanks that such obviously privileged, arrogant, boorish, self-regarding but worthless people are (mostly) a thing of the past.

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