Saturday, 28 July 2018

Prom 17: Parry, Holst & Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams (far right) with the Royal Army Medical Corps (Photograph© Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (far right) with the Royal Army Medical Corps (Photograph© Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust)
Hubert Parry, Gustav Holst, Vaughan Williams; Francesca Chiejina, Ashley Riches, BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, Martyn Brabbins; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 July 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Celebrating the Parry centenary with his music alongside his pupils thoughtful responses to the First World War

For Prom 17, Martyn Brabbins, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC National Chorus of Wales brought together English music written either side of the First World War, Hubert Parry's hope-filled symphonic masterpiece, Symphony No. 5 (Symphonic Fantasia '1912') from 1912 was paired with three works written in the shadow of the war, Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending and Pastoral Symphony, and Gustav Holst's Ode to Death, none of them obviously war inflected but each piece affected by their composer's wartime experience. This year is also the centenary of Parry's death, and as well his symphony the concert also included his large scale anthem, Hear my words, ye people. Tai Murray was the violin soloist in the Lark Ascending, with Francesca Chiejina (soprano) and Ashley Riches (bass) soloists in the Parry anthem.

Parry's fifth (and last) symphony was premiered at the Queen's Hall in London in December 1912. It consists of four linked movements; that each movement has a title ('Stress', 'Love', 'Play', & 'Now') suggests the work's tone-poem like character, and this is emphasised by the way Parry has labelled the various themes ('Brooding thought', 'Tragedy', 'Wrestling Thought' etc). As a symphonist, we can hear Parry's debt to Elgar, to Brahms and to Liszt but we should also remember that Elgar the symphonist owed something to Parry. Parry's writing, whilst having a sound akin to Elgar, lacks the latter composer's sheer grandiloquence and the fifth symphony is a thoughtful and in many ways poetic work.

The first movement opens with a theme which Parry labelled 'Brooding thought' and it brooded indeed as the slow introduction developed restlessly into an 'Allegro' with Elgarian overtones (or perhaps we should say that Elgar has Parry overtones!). The orchestra made a fine, mellow sound, with much ebb and flow of detail, moments of calm and thrilling drama. The second movement included a lovely duet for bass clarinet and solo cello (evidently the bass clarinet was one of Parry's most favourite instruments), and also a remarkably noble tune. Yet the movement did not progress in an obvious fashion, and there was a remarkable amount of complexity in the detail whilst at the end everything simply subsided into the scurrying delight and perky rhythms of the third movement. This had a delightful, country-dance style trio featuring the horns. The finale brought thoughts of Elgar again, but with a more rumbustious quality to the big tune. Parry gives this a terrific development, which strives to a triumphant close. Throughout, Brabbins and the orchestra played the music as if they had known it for ever, with lovely string phrasing and fine woodwind solos.

This was followed by a far more familiar work, RVW's Lark Ascending with the American violinist Tai Murray. From the opening with its hushed strings, and Murray's barely-there solo, it was clear that she took a very particular view of the work. Her solo line, all elegant fine-grained sound, seemed to go on for ever and throughout the piece tempos were relaxed (without ever being over-done) and Murry emphasised the time-less, contemplative nature of the piece rather than worrying about the descriptive natural detail. This is, in fact, all apiece with the modern view of the work as arising out of RVW's war-time experiences (it was written originally in 1914 and revised in 1920). The middle section had greater vitality, with a clarity and transparency to the orchestral contribution, but then we relaxed into a truly magical ending.

After the interval we had Parry's Hear my words, ye people for choir, brass, organ, solo soprano (Francesca Chiejina) and bass solo (Ashley Riches). Originally written for the Diocesan Choral Festival at Salisbury Cathedral in 1894, the work alternates between full chorus and semi-chorus, with sections for the soloists. It started with an organ peroration (from Adrian Partington on the Royal Albert Hall organ) and throughout the organ part was important, hardly accompanying and rather commenting though there were times when it seemed rather too prominent in the mix in the hall. The soloists were placed quite far back, and neither completely felt present enough in the hall though both sang confidently. All in all, the piece rather failed to hang together, the individual sections never coalescing into a significant work, and this was emphasised by the final section when we suddenly jumped into a memorable tune which became a well-known hymn tune.

Thankfully, Holst's Ode to death was a richer and subtler piece. Premiered in 1919, it arose out of Holst's war-time experiences with the YMCA in Salonica and Istanbul. A setting of Walt Whitman for chorus and orchestra, Holst matches the individual tone of the different verses yet melds the whole into a unique piece. The opening sounded aetherial with transparent scoring when, listening to the words ('Come lovely and soothing death/Undulate round the world, serenely arriving'), we might have expected something more elegiac. This is Holst in The Planets mode (in fact written just before in 1914-1916 and premiered in 1918), and for all the richness of the harmony there was a certain coolness particularly arising out of Holst's fondness for bitonality. In the 'Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet', Holst's writing almost suggests a march, yet the material is hardly martial and Brabbins really brought out the work's subtle poetry. Holst the mystic emerged in the 'Lost in the loving floating ocean', a truly remarkable passage, whilst the concluding section with its bitonality and otherworldly tension, was truly eerie.

This was the work's first performance at The Proms, and I have not heard it live since I sang in a performance with the University chorus as a student in 1974. It is puzzling why such a rich, fascinating work, a secular requiem in all but name, is not better known.

The final work in the programme was another deceptive one. It is fatally easy to fall back on Peter Warlock's satirical comment ' like a cow looking over a gate', yet the piece had its origins in the First World War, and the landscape being evoked is wartime France. This is another contemplative meditation on war, rather than an angry striving. It is worth remembering that another British First World War participant, Sir Arthur Bliss, produced his Morning Heroes after the war, another thoughtful, troubling work.

There is little fast or loud music in RVW's symphony, yet it is full of expressive and passionate moments. The opening movement was quietly concentrated, with quite a flowing tempo and the music gradually building in layers. Brabbins beautifully controlled the ebb and flow of ideas, constantly keeping the music moving yet revealing a lot of detail in the orchestra. As drama progressed, he and the orchestra relished the lush textures and brought out a surprising amount of passion. The second movement opened with a melancholy horn call (again we had bitonality as a profoundly expressive device), creating an eerie moment. The concentrated texture of the orchestral playing was broken by the atmospheric off-stage natural trumpet, creating a moment where time was suspended. The vigorous scherzo was remarkably rumbustious, with pastoral flute passages and an English country dance on the brass, all mixed into something characteristic of RVW. Then suddenly it turns into a perky English country dance. The final movement includes a wordless soprano, off-stage, here Francesca Chiejina who sang with a very rich timbre and create sound which was very present in the hall, there was nothing aetherial about this soprano she was a full-blooded woman (RVW's wife talked about this passaged being about 'that essence of summer where a girl passes singing' and this was a flesh and blood girl). This solo unleashed complex passions in the orchestra, leading to a magical ending where the soprano solo reappears, then evaporates leaving just a high violin note.

This was a fine and thoughtful concert which paired the music of Parry with that of the younger generation of English composers, and giving us the more thoughtful side of English music from the 1910s and 1920s.

Photograph of RVW courtesy of the Vaughan Williams Society.

This review also appears in OperaToday.com

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