Proms 60 & 61 – BBCNOW British, French and Belgian

Composer Portrait – Lennox & Michael Berkeley (4 September)

Lennox Berkeley
Sonatina for guitar
Michael Berkeley
Catch Me if You Can

Michael Berkeley in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Xuefei Yang (guitar)

Wind Quintet from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama

Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Prom 60 (4 September)

Michael Berkeley
Secret Garden
Oration *
The Planets **

Prom 61 (5 September)

Mother Goose
Lennox Berkeley
Magnificat, Op.71 ***
Symphony in D minor

Steven Isserlis (cello) *

BBC Singers (women’s voices) **

St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir ***
Westminster Abbey Choir ***
Westminster Cathedral Choir ***

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 5 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The final Composer Portrait of this year’s Proms featured Michael Berkeley introducing music by himself and his father Lennox, whose centenary falls this year.

Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina is a most attractive work, which was winningly played by Xuefei Yang, recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Music. Michael Berkeley drew attention to the fact that his father wrote the Sonatina with the character of Julian Bream in mind. Xuefei Yang made the piece very much her own, imbuing the first movement with an effervescent spirit and making light of considerable technical demands. The contrasting ruminative second movement and the animated finale were similarly engaging. I look forward to hearing more from this gifted young artist.

The title of Michael Berkeley’s wind quintet alludes to children’s games, which become less than playful. Indeed, from the music itself, they are downright unpleasant, with some strident sounds from the extremes of the ensemble – low bassoon and high piccolo vying for supremacy, for instance. The quintet is also cast in three movements, the outer ones being especially rapid and forceful, with the second providing some respite, not least via a haunting solo from the alto flute.

The Wind Quintet from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama contains some assured players and gave the piece a convincing performance.

Michael Berkeley’s music was also heard as the opening item in the first of two concerts given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Principal Conductor Richard Hickox. On record, Hickox has, without question, given some sterling and, insome instances, important performances. One thinks of his contribution to Chandos’s complete survey of Walton’s music, and especially his recording of Troilus and Cressida which has contributed in no small measure to a re-evaluation of the opera being the pivotal work in Walton’s output it undoubtedly is. His championing of neglected corners of the repertoire – especially by selected British composers – is also highly commendable. His current traversal of the music of the Berkeleys being a pertinent case in point, so too Frank Bridge.

However, without the safety harness provided by the security of the studio, Hickox live is all too often a different matter, withperformances which suggest lack of sufficient preparation and/orinterpretations which have not adequately been thought through.

Michael Berkeley’s Secret Garden was a joint commission from his publisher, Oxford University Press, and the LSO, which gave the first performance under Sir Colin Davis in January 1998. It was Berkeley’s first purely orchestral work for more than a decade and is a piece of programme music par excellence. The scenario outlines the penetration of walls to gain access to the garden of the title, exotic in character but not without a hint of threat, and a subsequent passing back through the walls.

This hints at a sort of filmic character and the music, similarly,suggests a cinematic quality. The opening passage is dominated by strident fanfares and utilises an idea, which is, in the words of Anthony Burton’s programme note, “perhaps a subconscious reminiscence of a recurring phrase in Britten’s Curlew River”. This was not so much “a subconscious reminiscence”, as a blatant quotation. The problem with such an allusion is that it inevitably causes the listener to recall the original – in this instance, Britten’s evocative curlew cry blown up into monstrous proportions, and one kept wondering why. This disconcerting opening subsequently gives way to more lush material, with possible hints of Tippet with its use of cool vibraphone and bluish inflections from woodwind. The final peroration, with its Sibelian overtones, is certainly stirring, but is not sufficiently affirmative to allay the sense of a rather uneven work, however attractive its surface qualities. BBCNOW has recorded the piece under Hickox (Chandos), and so the present performance benefited from such preparation, but tauter direction and more incisive playing would have heightened its overall impact.

Frank Bridge’s Oration – subtitled ’concerto elegiaco for cello and orchestra’ – has waited over 70 years for its first Proms performance. Performances have been few and far between following the premiere in 1936, although Isserlis and Hickox have committed it to disc.

Oration is a remarkable and powerful work, utterly unlike any other English music being composed at the time, and yet there is clear foreshadowing of Britten, who was Bridge’s devoted pupil, not least in the epilogue where the troubled seascapes of Peter Grimes seem to be glimpsed on the horizon. With alternating sections of visceral power and painful introspection, a similar response from soloist and conductor is required in terms of both concentration and intensity. Sadly, Steven Isserlis, whilst producing some exquisitely poised quiet playing, was quite overwhelmed at times by the more anguished orchestral outbursts. His visible movements suggesting powerful playing were not matched by the output from his instrument. The force of the work was, thus, considerably diminished, and Hickox’s rather all-purpose response rendered the structure more episodic than is, in fact, the case.

Holst’s The Planets, in a sense, can never fail to thrill, excite and delight, given the panoply of orchestral forces, and the sheer fecundity of Holst’s invention. The problem with this performance is that the whole felt much too bland and comfortable. The ferocity of Mars was replaced by ample plushness, with insufficient rhythmic bite, whilst Venus was too loud and fast. The fleet-winged Mercury was a clumsy creature under Hickox’s direction, and Jupiter brash and self-satisfied. In Saturn, the effect of Holst’s alarming climax was lessened by the use of softer bell mallets than those prescribed by the composer who requests metal strikers, and, in Uranus, Holst’s handling of the orchestra seemed somehow clumsy rather than assured and original.

In Neptune, Holst writes a footnote on the first page – “NB The orchestra is to play sempre pp throughout”. This request was disregarded in favour of something inappropriately substantial, and the women of the normally reliable BBC Singers were often just under the note in their wordless contribution,atmospherically and effectively though they were placed in the gallery.

This is such a wonderful work – it was a pity to have it performed in a way which suggested that players and conductor were relying more on their collective familiarity with the score, rather than as a result of considered rehearsal and purposeful and insightful direction.

In the second concert, the orchestra which had proven collectivelyreliable the previous evening, seemed to be plagued by intonationdifficulties fairly consistently. This was particularly noticeable inthe woodwind, which was a shame because players were clearlyendeavouring to mould their phrases expressively. There were also not infrequent discrepancies in the overall ensemble evident right from the opening of Mother Goose where the chords were not together.

It was good that the complete score was played, rather than the five pieces that were its starting point, but less happy was Hickox’s generally leaden tempos that caused the transition sections to feel less tautly structured than they are. Certainly the lightness and delicacy which is an integral part of this music were remarkable by their absence. Vaughan Williams is often commended for having absorbed some hints on scoring from Ravel, but I don’t think I have ever heard Ravel sounding like Vaughan Williams, as was the case in this misguided reading, with strings glutinous in character and descending most inappropriately into sentimentality.

Lennox Berkeley’s Magnificat was composed for the opening of the 1968 City of London Festival and given by the same choral forces as were assembled for this Prom. Decidedly for concert rather than liturgical performance, this is an expansive setting in Latin of this timeless text. Falling naturally into distinctive sections, there is generally an air of bright celebration, which was aided by admirably clear and crisp singing from the combined choirs. More reflective passages hinted at a more troubled atmosphere, helped by some darkly effective scoring. As on other occasions this year when an organ has been required, the artificial substitute for the RAH’s own instrument is, in fact, no substitute at all with it’s manufactured timbre being at odds with the required sonority.

Although his meeting with Ravel is cited as being a key moment in Lennox Berkeley’s early development as a composer, it was, rather, the sound of Olivier Messiaen which was recalled through the clicking of xylophone and the bird-like cries of the woodwind, the exact symbolism or significance of which is not immediately apparent. The assured choral response was offset by some tentative orchestral playing, and although there are some undeniably compelling moments – not least the startling final cadence – one couldn’t help reflect that J.S Bach managed to say much more about this canticle with his restricted orchestral palette than Berkeley does with opulent deployment.

Of Belgian birth and French base, César Franck’s lone symphony was completed the year before he died in 1890 and is part of that group of works which he produced testifying to a late flowering of his composing talents. There are some characteristic touches of orchestration, especially for cor anglais, bass clarinet and harp, by no means permanent members of the symphony orchestra at that time. The symphony as a whole, in structure and sonority, requires careful handling if its limitations are not to be made manifest.

Unfortunately, this was rather a crude and blustery performance, with some exaggerated and often unmarked gear changes, and some of the brass playing in the outer movements was blatantly coarse, doing no service to the less subtle melodic moments, of which there are more than a few. The second movement was more judiciously handled, with some sensitive harp playing, but with a cor anglais player who, at the end of the evening, was still unable to alleviate tuning difficulties which was a troubling, if consistent, feature of this concert.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast of Prom 60 on Saturday 6 September. Prom 61 on Monday 8 September. Both at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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