Thursday 2 May 2013

RVW 4 and A Child of our Time at the Festival Hall

Ralph Vaughan Williams conducting
Ralph Vaughan Williams conducting
As part of the South Bank Centre's continuing The Rest Is Noise Festival, the London Philharmonic reached the UK in the 1930's last night (1 May 2013) at the Royal Festival Hall. Conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, they performed Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony dating from 1935. The orchestra was joined by soloists Claire Booth, Pamela-Helen Stephen, Ben Johnson and Matthew Rose, and the London Philharmonic Choir to perform Michael Tippett's oratorio A Child of our Time which Tippett started writing in 1938. Famously RVW said of his symphony that 'I don't know whether I like it, but it's what I meant', though he was always rather provocative when talking about his own music and hid his real feelings behind a jovial mask. He always denied that the work had any link to the politics of the period, but the music's stormy and dramatic atmosphere, with a clear difference in style to earlier symphonies, makes the idea tempting. By contrast Tippett's oratorio had a clear basis in the happenings of 1938, being based an incident in Paris which led to the infamous Kristallnacht.

The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 and before it started the announcer, Petroc Trelawney, interviewed conductor Ryan Wigglesworth who said that for him RVW's symphony wasn't so much about the politics of the early 1930's but about RVW challenging himself, setting himself challenges with regard to the use of formal structures in the symphony.

The violence of the opening of the symphony was certainly brought out by Wigglesworth and the orchestra. Not by hammering it home as in some performances, but by giving the music a strong edge. This was a performance which highlighted RVW's links to other continental composers and the way Wigglesworth brought out the edgy brass was not dissimilar to Hindemith. Wigglesworth speed was quite brisk and the movement had a sort of overwhelming impetus which carried you away. The second subject had a lovely sweep in the strings and as the music developed it was fascinating to hear links to other RVW works. Though the symphony was noticeably different to his previous ones, the violence in it was pre-figured by other symphonic works such as Job. But the wonderful clarity which Wigglesworth brought to the piece, revealed other works as well. And after all the violence, the first movement ended with finely eerie coda.

The opening of the second movement was marred by the decision of the RFH management to let people in; a reasonable thing to do in itself, but Wigglesworth had already started the quiet opening. Again, his performance in this movement had great clarity and you felt that the formal structures of RVW's work were far more clearly apparent than in some performances. This wasn't a comfortable performance though (in the best possible sense) and some moments in this movement were more astonishing than I have ever heard. The final flute solo was unutterably bleak.

The brisk Scherzo was full of brilliant, energised playing from the orchestra. Though frantic, it was edgy and continue the performances thrust and impetus. Finally after an incredibly eerie transition with very prominent timpani, Wigglesworth unleashed the final movement at a ferocious speed. It was almost unrelenting, with only the occasional quiet moment to relax slightly, concluding with a vividly violent fugue.

There was a feeling, in this performance, of Wigglesworth removing layers of accumulated paint from RVW's symphony to reveal it's true structure. It was a complete tour-de-force from the orchestra, who stunningly followed Wigglesworth's speeds and need for impetus and controlled violence.

In the second half, the opening notes of Tippett's oratorio seemed to be in a far closer sound-world to the RVW than I would have expected. There were many good things about the oratorio, Wiggleworth was truly alert to the way Tippett used rhythm. He brought out the wonderful dancing rhythms both in the chorus and in the orchestra, and kept the poly-rhythmic impact in the more powerful moments. The clarity he brought to the sound, meant that these did not degenerate into an aural mush.

Wigglesworth had clearly developed a good rapport with the choir and they gave a very fine, dramatic and committed performance for him. My only complaint that they could have brought out the words more.

A Child of our Time is an oratorio, which implies that words are important and that the work has a dramatic message. Unfortunately this was not entirely clear in the performance. The soloists did not always match the dramatic impetus necessary and words seemed rather at a premium.

It was unfortunate for the tenor of the whole piece, that after the fine opening chorus, alto soloist Pamela Helen Stephen came in with her beautifully modulated, nicely committed, warm toned solo, which unfortunately was pitched at far to low a volume level and whose words were not clear enough. The audibility issue persisted throughout the piece. Tenor Ben Johnson has a lovely lyric voice and he sensibly did not force, but the result was that there were too many moments when he simply could not ride the orchestra. This was a shame, because his was clearly a beautifully toned and finely committed performance. By the end of the work, I had come to the conclusion that Wigglesworth could have done a lot more to help his soloists and that he was simply not alert enough to the balance problems created by giving orchestra and chorus their head in such a brilliant fashion.

Bass soloist Matthew Rose gave something of a masterclass in how it should be done, in his forceful narratives with every word counting. Soprano soloist Claire Booth was a last minute replacement for Rebecca Evans, but Booth certainly did not sound last minute. She floated the soprano solo's high notes with glorious confidence and rendered such moments as the transition into the first spiritual, Steal Away as quite magical.

I did rather think that Wigglesworth pulled the tempo of Steal Away around a little too much for comfort, which leads me into another general point. That this was a performance of moments, each short movement was well done but the whole did not quite add up into a dramatic narrative, there was no over-arching sweep to the music. The performance lacked the brilliant impetus and drive which Wigglesworth had brought to the RVW. Though Wiggleworth is an experienced opera conductor, on this showing he did seem more at home in RVW's formal structures than Tippett's looser narrative based work. This meant that the great moments, such as the spirituals, did rather stand out. And deservedly so, as chorus and orchestra rose to moving heights in these.

After such a vivid performance of RVW's Fourth Symphony, the rather disjointed performance of Tippett's A Child of our Time was a trifle disappointing. There is no denying that everyone, particularly chorus and orchestra, worked very hard and realised much of Tippett's vision, but it did not, ultimately, quite add up.

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  1. Did you see at the end of the 4th Symphony the end of the Timpani player's mallet came off?

    It flew about 20 feet into the air and landed back on the timpani, it was hilarious.

  2. No, we completely that missed that alas!


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