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Ian Bostridge [Photo © Ben Ealovega]
22 Aug 2013

Prom 51: Tippett, Britten & Elgar

This programme of twentieth-century British music burst dazzlingly into life with the blazing flourishes of Michael Tippett’s Fanfare No.5, arranged by Meirion Bowen from music drawn from the composer’s oratorio, The Mask of Time.

Prom 51: Tippett, Britten & Elgar

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ian Bostridge [Photo © Ben Ealovega]


It was a fitting choice with which to open a Promenade concert dedicated to the late Sir Colin Davis, who conducted the premiere of Tippett’s monumental oratorio in 1984, and who was to have returned to the Royal Albert Hall on this occasion, the scene of so many unforgettable Proms performances under his baton.

Replacing Davis, who sadly died earlier this year, Daniel Harding led fourteen members of the London Symphony brass section, plus two percussionists, in a vibrant performance in which the knotty dialogues between the contending voices were crisply delineated before melding satisfyingly in an expansive, homophonic surge towards the triumphant cadence.

This air of confidence and optimism was sustained in the subsequent Concerto for Double String Orchestra — a mood all the more remarkable when one remembers that the work was composed during 1938-1939 as war loomed ever more inevitably. Moreover, the young composer, perhaps more prone to cerebral intellectualism than outpourings of positivism, was himself only slowly forging his own language, hesitantly moving towards musical certainties.

There was certainly nothing tentative about the exuberant contrapuntal outbursts which heralded the first movement. The string players of the LSO delivered Tippett’s flamboyant rhythms with dynamic directness and a fresh, clean tone, as Harding sought to maintain clarity of texture as the flexible lines interwove and danced. Perhaps it was a somewhat too charming and genteel; I would have like a little more boisterousness to balance the lyricism. And, while Harding capably managed the transitions between the many contrasting episodes, more might have been made of the surprising, and wonderful, dovetailing of the end of the fugal section with the return of the main theme.

In the Adagio cantabile Harding placed more emphasis on the adagio than cantabile. The conductor took a risk not only with the tempo, but also with the dynamics, resisting the temptation to let the arching lines grow and swell, restraining the strings to a mezzo piano. The expansive tempo and quiet delicacy resulted in a pathos that was almost Mahlerian, but in a hall of these vast dimensions some of the intensity of the impact was lessened.

The third movement resumed the work’s propulsive energy; again, Harding’s textures were refined and lucid, and leader Carmine Lauri’s opening solo delightfully sweet, as major and minor modes piquantly intertwined. The Northumbrian bagpipe melody which inspired the closing passages was full of grace and air.

The work references a panoply of musical styles and forms — the contrapuntalism of Renaissance polyphony, the Baroque concerto grosso, Beethovenian sonata structures, the anticipatory rhythms and blue notes of jazz, the modality of British folk-song — and while Harding combined these into a pleasing whole he did not quite synthesise the polyphonic debates which drive the music relentlessly forward.

Benjamin Britten’s song cycle, Les Illuminations, also written in 1939, had rather more bite and a challenging tartness. Selecting and ordering some of the poems from French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s eponymous collection — texts very different to the English poetry that the composer had typically set in his songs of the 1930s — Britten seems to have relished the extravagant idiosyncrasies of the, at times, self-indulgent poetry, with its exotic, sensual imagery expressing the young poet’s defiance, excitement and elation in the face of the exhilarating potential of modernity and new frontiers.

Ian Bostridge was totally in tune with the rebellious theatricality, bordering on the surreal, of Britten’s inventive settings. In this commanding performance not one word of Rimbaud’s fragmented, often bizarre, phrases was overlooked or unconsidered. Bostridge’s voice has acquired a greater range and substance at the bottom of late — not ‘weight’ exactly, but an enriching of the colour and timbre — and every gesture was audible, throughout the dynamic spectrum. Often Rimbaud plays with sounds, the onomatopoeic echoes, swishes and crunches serving as a kind of erotic grammar, and Bostridge was unfailingly alert to the way Britten exploits the resonances of the words, confidently articulating the complex linguistic snatches. In this regard, the tenor was well-supported by Harding and the string players of the LSO; the on-going instrumental discourse was full of diverse colours and shades, at times assuming precedence over the voice but never engulfing the vocal utterances.

The tonal arguments of the opening ‘Fanfare’ were deftly settled by Bostridge’s assertive pronouncement, ‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’ (Only I have the key to this wild parade), although the thoughtful decrescendo on the final word hinted prophetically at the changes to come, and subsequent repetitions of this refrain invoked darker moods.

‘Villes’, depicting the bustle of city life, was blithely light, the rushing string lines seeming almost airborne, punctuated by gripping pizzicati, until Bostridge relaxed the pace at the close, as the singer has what Britten described as a ‘prayer for a little peace’. The close of the short and pensive ‘Phrase’ — ‘Des chaînes d’or d’étoile à étoile, et je danse’ — floated dreamily, high above the low cellos. Typical in its orchestral diversity and invention, ‘Antique’ was noteworthy for the dry languorous rhythms of the inner strings which provided a mysterious accompaniment to the simple fanfare-like vocal melody and the soft brushing pizzicati of the close.

Bostridge was exuberantly assertive in ‘Royauté’ and despatched the virtuosic twists and runs of ‘Marine’ with ease. The descending, interlacing string figures of ‘Interlude’ and the darkened repetition of the work’s opening line, led to a sensuous, intense rendition of ‘Being Beauteous’ (dedicated to ‘P.N.L.P.’ — Peter Pears), the erotic imagery of the ardent vocal declamation elucidated by the harmonic richness of the strings.

Bostridge totally immersed himself in this work, musically, emotionally and physically, at times leaning (dangerously?) far backwards, elsewhere thrusting his hands nonchalantly in his pockets, sometimes fixing his eye confrontationally on the audience. Willing to throw caution to the winds, Bostridge gave a technically flawless account, the arresting characterisation absolutely convincing. It is hard to imagine a better performance of Britten’s thrilling song-cycle.

Elgar’s Second Symphony, composed in 1911, is a dark and enigmatic work, its inward emotional narrative intermittently exposed but never unambiguously revealed. The composer called it ‘the passionate pilgrimage of a soul’ and it is often regarded as a signature work. Colin Davis’ 2002 recording with the LSO won accolades and a host of awards but here Harding, though offering a sensitive reading alert to the details of timbre, did not quite have the measure of the symphony’s emotional sweep. Ironically, originally Sir Colin Davis was to have conducted the 2 nd Symphony of Sibelius, whose final symphony Harding performed with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra earlier in the Proms season.

The opening of the first movement, with its proud thematic statement, signalled Harding’s appreciation of the majestic nobility of the work but the tempi throughout were on the slow side. While it is true that time and space is needed for the resolution of the complex and changeable harmonic relationships, Harding was less successful in managing the volatile changes of tempo and mood which create forward drive and impulsion (Elgar’s own recordings are characterised by numerous shifts, sometimes violent, sometimes subtle, and dramatic, frequent use of rubato).

The slow movement was passionate and refined, the moments of hushed meditation touchingly gentle; an exquisite oboe solo injected an air of tender nostalgia. But, overall there was a sense of reserve, not exactly aloofness but rather a coolness or formality, as if the emotional depths were not being plummeted.

The racing scherzo, by contrast, wickedly transformed the theme of the first movement into a nightmarish vision of horror, and there was plenty of pomp and majesty in the final ‘Moderato e maestoso’, although here again the recapitulation did not fully achieve a sense of liberating affirmation. But, the final bars were wonderfully contemplative and whispered; a shame, then, that the spell-binding silence that Harding desired was shattered by overly hasty, impatient applause.

Claire Seymour

Programme and production information:

Tippett: The Mask of Time — Fanfare No. 5, Concerto for Double String Orchestra; Britten: Les illuminations; Elgar — Symphony No. 2 in E flat major. Ian Bostridge, tenor; Daniel Harding, conductor; London Symphony Orchestra. Royal Albert Hall, London, Tuesday, 20th August 2013.

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