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W. A. Mozart by Barbara Krafft, Salzburg, 1819
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BBC Prom 50

In 2008, the late Richard Hickox, founder and then music director of the City of London Sinfonia, commissioned a work from composer Colin Matthews to celebrate the orchestra’s 40th anniversary, which takes place this year.

Benjamin Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge; Colin Matthews: No Man’s Land; W.A. Mozart: Requiem in D minor (compl. Süssmayr)

Emma Bell, soprano; Renata Pokupić, mezzo-soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Roderick Williams, baritone; Henk Neven, baritone. Polyphony. City of London Sinfonia. Stephen Layton conductor. BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, Sunday 21st August 2011.

Above: W. A. Mozart by Barbara Krafft, Salzburg, 1819


No Man’s Land received its premiere in this Promenade concert, which was dedicated to Hickox’s memory and reflected his own particular musical passions and interests.

A setting of ‘Airs and Ditties of No Man’s Land’, a sequence of poems by Christopher Reid, Matthews’ work takes the form of a conversation between the ghostly skeletons of two soldiers whose mangled bodies have been left hanging on the barbed wire which separates the opposing forces of the Somme. Captain Gifford (tenor, Ian Bostridge) and Sergeant Slack (baritone, Roderick Williams) reflect on their experiences of war in a discomforting sequence of reminiscences.

In fact, although there are some exchanges of dialogue between the two men, the overall effect of the sequence is less a ‘conversation’ than a series of individual outbursts juxtaposing painful recollections of the battlefield with ironic wartime songs and ballads of the period. The singers, aided by the musical fabric, worked hard to produce a coherent drama, joining together in the more expansive duet passages with a painful lyrical earnestness. Bostridge, in particular, convincingly conveyed the patrician gravity of the Captain; in his first arioso passage, describing the apocalyptic events of the battle — when the “earth erupted/ In fountains of black clay; Ancient trees somersaulted/ And broke their backs; a landscape/ jumped up and ran away.” — his high tenor soared emotively above the chamber orchestra’s occasional moments of poignant harmonic consonance. The physical casting was fortunate too, with Bostridge a tall, imposing figure of aristocratic assertiveness and Williams a more jovial, down-to-earth chap.

Adopting a chamber orchestra with percussion, celeste and a ‘an out-of-tune upright piano of the kind which might have made its way to the Western Front’, Matthews has created an atmospheric score which shockingly contrasts the humorous and the haunting, the sloppily sentimental with the bitingly ironic. In a manner reminiscent of Britten’s skilful pastiches, the idioms of the period — and even actual recordings - are adroitly recreated and integrated in Mahlerian fashion, the instrumentation further enhancing the incongruities between text and timbre. Thus, in a grimly cheery ballad, Williams’ relaxed warm baritone was suitably complemented by his nonchalant stance - an indulgent rubato here and there suggesting a gregarious pub performance — before succeeding to unsettling rhythmic busyness evoking the scurrying of rats in the trenches, and ominous drumrolls heralding Gifford’s disquieting declaration:

I’ll tell you something, Sergeant Slack,
I with they’d told me long before:
The tunes that march men off to war
Are not the same as march them back.

The sequence builds to a powerful conclusion: Slack’s waltz-like ditty is interrupted by dissonant rumblings leading to an instrumental interlude which conveys both compassion and despair. This is followed by Gifford’s recollection of a ‘dream’, an episode dramatising the appalling indifference of those in command to the sufferings of their men, which equals Sassoon in its casual bitterness. In the final exchange, Bostridge’s tenor assumed a hollow ring as, emptied of life, the two men confront the painful truth: the men who fall, not from ‘high-spirits’, not in a ‘swoon’, these men, “who go into no man’s land/ [And] won’t be back soon”. A solo violin mordantly underlined the text’s dreadful finality.

With its jarring juxtapositions, its pain and poignancy, and its disconcerting honesties, the overall effect of No Man’s Land is of a sort of War Requiem meets Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’. Matthews has created a moving, disturbing work of great emotional power, and he was well served by the CLS, whose well-defined playing was adeptly shaped into a dramatic whole by Layton.

The opening work, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, was similarly incisive and alert, as Layton gradually increased the rhythmic energy, eliciting a range of colours and sound worlds from his dynamic string players. The performance built from austere beginnings, through the sweet charms of the ‘Romance’, the racing wit of the ‘Aria Italiana’, and the sonorous intensity of the ‘Funeral March’, concluding with a Fugue of spiky vigour.

A pacy performance of Mozart’s Requiem made for an exciting, enlivened second half. Tempi were brisk, and crisp instrumental articulation was matched by the driving impact of Polyphony’s vocal delivery. The individual movements proceeded with scarcely a pause, forming an almost operatic whole. There were consummate performances from all four eminent soloists. Bostridge once again demonstrated his professional poise, and he was joined by baritone Henk Neven, who despite some confident projection found himself a little overwhelmed by an exuberant solo trombone in the Tuba Miram! Renata Pokupić’s mezzo soprano was full of life and colour, while Emma Bell’s bright, well-shaped soprano lines were a particular highlight. It all made for a pleasingly fresh and engaging rendering of this familiar work.

Claire Seymour

Click here to listen to this program.

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