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06 Nov 2018

For the Fallen: James Macmillan's All the Hills and Vales Along at Barbican Hall

‘He has clothed his attitude in fine words: but he has taken the sentimental attitude.’ So, wrote fellow war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley of the last sonnets of Rupert Brooke.

For the Fallen: Marking the First World War Centenary, Ian Bostridge (tenor), Gianandrea Noseda (conductor) London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain at Barbican Hall, London.

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Charles Hamilton Sorley

 

There is nothing sentimental about Sorley’s own poetry which, like that of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, looks with sardonic objectivity upon themes such as duty and the glory of war, and does not shy from examining, with frank intensity and authenticity, violence and death in relation to private and public commemoration.

This concert at the Barbican Hall was one such public commemoration. James MacMillan’s oratorio, All the Hills and Vales Along, for solo tenor, chorus, brass band and orchestra was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and 14-18 NOW. It sets five poems by Sorley who, aged just 20, was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Loos in 1915 (a smaller-scale version of the work, for string quintet and solo winds was presented at MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival in Ayrshire last month).

The sight of the eighty or so members of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain crowding around the London Symphony Orchestra and beneath the London Symphony Chorus on the Barbican Hall stage was both tremendous and somewhat troubling. After all, many of these young musicians are little younger than Sorley himself and the millions of others who died in the conflict.

The opening moments of Macmillan’s setting of ‘All the hills and vales along’ exacerbated this unease. The pastoral intimations of the poem’s title are disregarded; landscape is an indifferent onlooker here. Macmillan begins with an eerie ‘noise’ that brings to mind Owen’s image in his poem ‘Exposure’, of the ‘air that shudders with black snow’ as the men wait, in terrible anticipation of the forthcoming battle: ‘Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,/ But nothing happens.’ The bows of the LSO strings seemed unmoving and no pulse gave life to the dry, grey huskiness which emanated, until the still, cupped hands of conductor Gianandrea Noseda opened and the brassy vigour of a march burst forth. The summons of the side drum and the measured thump of the bass drum inspired fortitude and focus, countered by crescendo-ing blares and rhythmic shifts which conjured both excitement and peril. (At the Cumnock performance, the ironic medley of marches and hymn-like melodies was played by the Dalmellington Band, founded in 1864, in which MacMillan’s coal-miner grandfather played euphonium.)

The unison entry of the male voices of the London Symphony Chorus were lifted aloft by the beating drum, their marching song robustly declaimed but lacking in hope: ‘And the singers are the chaps/ Who are going to die perhaps’. The full choral voices rang with a stirring hymn, ‘So sing with joyful breath’, though more honest spirituality was evoked by the quieter description, accompanied by vibraphone, of an ‘Earth that knows of death, not tears.’ The return of the title line, this time sung by the soft female voices evoked the distance between those who march away and those who remain, with only memories and echoes to comfort them: ‘Earth will echo still, when foot/ Lies numb and voice mute.’

There is no deceit or denial in Sorley’s poem, which urges the marching men onwards, ‘To the gates of death with song’, and which concludes with the cynically trite couplet, ‘Strew your gladness on earth’s bed./ So be merry, so be dead.’ Macmillan captures this unflinching honesty in his setting, and in the subsequent movement ‘Rook’, for tenor and orchestra which was sung by Ian Bostridge with soul-piercing focus. So often, in lieder recitals, Bostridge seems to ‘live’ the experience of the poetic protagonists; here, though his engagement and communication were no less emotive or affecting, he retained a certain detachment and poise - the experiences and lives described where not so much ‘lived’ as felt and communicated. The vocal challenges that Macmillan presents are considerable, and at the top and bottom of his range Bostridge did not always seem at ease but, characteristically, the tenor did not once shy from full commitment to the vocal embodiment of poetic meaning. The first word, ‘There, where the rusty iron lies’, was a shout of pained bewilderment, the sound ironically sweet and clean above tremulous string fluttering. The violas’ counter-melody seemed to push the questioning, wondering voice upwards - ‘Perhaps no man, until he dies,/ Will understand them, what they say’ - as Noseda summoned ever greater intensity, driving towards the climactic statement: ‘The world is half content.’ This declaration marked a change: gentle, soaring explorations by the strings, and the stuttering pianissimo triplets which whispered as the players lightly dropped their bows onto the strings, suggested a motionlessness which was complemented by the chiasmus of Bostridge yearning reflection on ‘the soul that flies/ From day to night, from night to day.’

These first two movements created a powerful and disturbing impact which I did not feel was wholly sustained in the subsequent parts of the oratorio. The thunderous bass drum roll that introduced Sorley’s sonnet, ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’, was succeeded by a chamber group of solo strings whose timbres and harmonies recalled the elegiac wistfulness of the music of those - Howells, Finzi, Ireland - who themselves experienced the conflict. However, Macmillan does inject growing energy, and uses dynamic contrast effectively as the Chorus relay the poet-speaker’s instructions to ‘Give them not praise … Nor tears … Nor honour.’: ‘Say only this. “They are dead.”’ And, the distorted muted ‘fanfares’ at the close were aptly disconcerting, for: ‘Great death has made all his for evermore.’

‘A hundred thousand million mites we go’ is quite cinematic in its initial bracing string rush, and brutal snap-pizzicato representation of the curses that ‘snap the air’. Both the rhythmic style and text-setting reminded me of Britten. (Echoes of the timeless observations of the Male and Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia seemed discernible in Macmillan’s settings of the lines, ‘And nations, ankle-deep in love or hate,/ Throw darts or kisses all the unwitting hour/ Beside the ominous unseen tide of fate:’.) Indeed, it was Bostridge’s characteristically discerning and intense delivery of the text which gave this movement its power. Elongated vowels were weighted, as the soldiers set off ‘Wheeling and tacking o’er the endless plain’, and later swayed ‘Writhing and tossing on the eternal plain’. As the vocal line sank, Bostridge’s tone became blanched, ‘Some black with death’; melodic ascents gained intensity, accompanied by the strings’ horrid scurrying. Consonants were viciously enunciated, ‘And some are mounted on swift steeds of thought’; a violently rolled ‘r’ infused the poem’s final question with agonised inconclusiveness: ‘Who brings us home again?’

In 1914, prior to taking up his place at Cambridge University, Sorley visited Germany, and when war broke out he found himself troubled by divided loyalties, which he made public in ‘To Germany’. This seemed to me the weakest of the movements, redolent not just with a Shostakovich-like bitterness - the angular unison string exclamations brought to mind the Fifth Symphony - but also with an Elgarian nostalgia, even nobilmente in the hymn for chorus and tenor which dominates the movement. Macmillan does return to the raspy whisper which began the oratorio, disturbing the dry murmur with blasts of brass and string tremolandos as Sorley describes ‘the storm,/The darkness and the thunder and the rain’ which will precede the coming of peace. But, I did not feel that Macmillan fully re-established the sardonic tone or emotional lucidity of Sorley’s poetry, which shows just how profoundly the young Scottish poet had grasped the truth about war - a truth he expressed with wariness and honesty.

There is much that is both sardonic and ‘heroic’ about Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, which requires the largest instrumental forces of any of the composer’s symphonies. It was begun in September 1935 and completed in May the following year, during which time the composer came under attack when Pravda accuses him of creating ‘Confusion instead of Music’ in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Shostakovich withdrew the symphony in December 1936, while it was in rehearsal, and it was not heard until the Khrushchev era when, having been revised by the composer, it was premiered in Moscow on 30th December 1961. Moreover, the symphony represents the young Shostakovich’s ambitious endeavour to reconcile his developing musical language with traditional symphonic form.

This is music that requires immense intellectual and physical effort, and Noseda made these creative forces palpable in the Allegretto poco moderato, emphasising the quasi-mechanistic relentlessness of the profusion of material, and balancing the motoring rhythms with the espressivo violins and the bassoon’s wry but elegant solo reflections (bassoonist Rachel Gough played superbly throughout and thoroughly deserved the cheer of acclaim she received). The long movement never felt disjointed - unruly at times, perhaps, but Noseda suggested that he could tame the beast. This was a physical onslaught, even assault, but there was delicacy too, and the woodwind - especially the clarinet, bass clarinet and cor anglais - painted vivid colours. Noseda took risks, pushing the sound towards vulgarity at times, and launching the strings’ fugato at a crazily precipitous tempo - the terrific LSO fiddles raced like a runaway train but amazingly stayed firmly on the tracks. The more conventional form and lighter scoring of the short Moderato con moto ironically allowed the conductor to playfully tug at the rhythm and tempo and knock the regular occasionally out of kilter. And, Noseda did not try to hide the Mahlerian presence at the start of the Largo while the final Allegro accrued an unstoppable momentum into which Noseda integrated moments of lightly scornful parody.

Perhaps Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony embodies a ‘battle’, or several battles, that cannot be won, its immensely imaginative but ultimately unreconcilable discourse never fully ‘conquered’. But, Noseda and the LSO communicated, almost viscerally, the truly heroic dimensions of that discourse.

The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 8 November at 7.30pm.

Claire Seymour

For the Fallen: Marking the First World War Centenary

James Macmillan: All the Hills and Vales Along (Commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, with the world premieres taking place at The Cumnock Tryst festival (chamber version) on 6 October 2018 and LSO (orchestral version) on 4 November 2018); Shostakovich: Symphony No.4 in C minor Op.43.

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), London Symphony Chorus (Simon Halsey, chorus director), National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain, London Symphony Orchestra.

Barbican Hall, London; Sunday 4th November 2018.

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