Milton Court Concert Hall
Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas TallisHolst – Eight Canons: ‘If you love songs,’ ‘Lovely Venus,’ ‘David’s Lament for Jonathan,’ ‘The Fields of Sorrow’
Birtwistle – The Fields of Sorrow
Birtwistle – Melancolia I
Vaughan Williams – Flos Campi
Joy Farrall (clarinet)Helen Tunstall (harp)
Clare Finnimore (viola)
Britten Sinfonia Voices (director: Eamonn Doughan)
Students from the Royal Academy of Music
Baldur Brönnimann (conductor)
This final concert in the Barbican Centre’s ‘Birtwistle at 80’ series – I managed to attend all but one – presented some of the composer’s music in a more general English context. Whilst there are doubtless correspondences to be drawn here, I could not help but wonder whether something a little more international might have been preferable. There are strands of pastoralism – albeit of rather different nature – and melancholy in common, but might it not have been more revealing to hear either some music from the more distant past or music from Birtwistle’s contemporaries? The Britten Sinfonia nevertheless offered fine performances under Baldur Brönnimann, joined by students from the Royal Academy of Music for Melancolia I.
Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis received an excellent, very ‘different’ performance: perhaps in part, though this is too easy an answer by itself, the result of having a conductor unburdened by a host of ‘traditional English’ associations? The score sounded febrile, almost Baroque (in a positive sense); but Ravel was present too, and, despite the small forces, so was lushness of sound. Structure was admirably clear – and meaningful, developmental in spite of the tendencies to stasis. Novelty of interpretation notwithstanding, the aforementioned vein of melancholy remained.
The interest Holst seems to have held for Birtwistle is understandable. Birtwistle is quoted in the programme as having described his predecessor as ‘a strange, shadowy figure’, who ‘didn’t really ever find himself and suffered from the English label’. No one could accuse Birtwistle of having failed to find himself, but the blurred line between ‘English’ and ‘continental’ music may suggest something in common. One can also imagine Birtwistle having set some of the same texts, especially in the case of the Eight Canons from 1932. I wondered whether the performances from Britten Sinfonia Voices were sometimes a little too bright in character for the texts, imbued as they are with loss. Words were not always as distinctly communicated as they might have been. That said, one had due sense of the musical processes at work, as one did with Birtwistle’s own Ausonius piece, The Fields of Sorrow, which followed on immediately from Holst’s (seemingly unknown to Birtwistle at the time of composition) From the piano opening and English horn response, to the very close, this was a melancholy, but never maudlin, experience, its symmetries seemingly both reflective of and helping to construct an imaginary – ‘mechanical pastoral’? – landscape. ‘Old flowers that were once bewailed names of kings’ came to life – and, perhaps, to death in the final antiphonal exchanges.
Melancholia I came in 1976, five years after The Fields of Sorrow. The composer’s tool of ‘stasis in progress’ was audibly present not only in work but also potent, well-shaped performance. Joy Farrell’s performance on clarinets and Helen Tunstall’s on harp were irreproachable, the former perhaps inevitably bringing to mind ghosts of Pierrot, however different the material and its working. Swarming strings, the Royal Academy players significantly augmenting their ranks, offered spatial as well as dramatic distinctions. A return to Vaughan Williams for the final Flos campi brought an apparent echo of the English horn from The Fields of Sorrow. The performance was purposeful, with excellent singing and playing from all concerned; Clare Finnimore made a fine last-minute replacement for the indisposed Maxim Rysanov. Vaughan Williams’s sensual, wordless delight may be very different from Birtwistle’s landscapes, but there is virtue in contrast as well as in correspondence, and in practice one is likely to find, as here, something of both.