Tuesday 21 August 2018

Songs of Farewell

Hubert Parry
Hubert Parry
Frank Bridge, RVW, Gustav Holst, Laura Mvula, Hubert Parry; BBC Singers, Sakari Oramo; BBC Proms at Cadogan Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 August 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A supremely poetic account of Parry's choral masterpiece, alongside a striking new work by Laura Mvula

When composer Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Bart. died in 1918 at the age of 70 it was very much the end of an era. Along with Sir Charles Villiers (1852-1924) Stanford, Parry had been responsible for the creation of a whole generation of English composers, yet Parry's own art looked very much to Germany. He had failed to study under Johannes Brahms but had studied with the German pianist Edward Dannreuther. Parry's Songs of Farewell, amongst his finest works and one of his last, written between 1913 and 1915 represent not only a farewell to life but a farewell to the civilisation that Parry had known and admired, as he watched the destruction wrought by the First World War.

Parry's Songs of Farewell formed the centrepiece of a BBC Proms concert given by the BBC Singers with conductor Sakari Oramo at Cadogan Hall on Monday 20 August 2018. Alongside Parry's work, we heard three pieces by English composers of the younger generation, Frank Bridge's Music, when soft voices die (from 1904), RVW's Rest (from 1902) and Gustav Holst's Nunc Dimittis (from 1915), plus the world premiere of Laura Mvula's Love Like a Lion, a BBC Proms Commission in which Mvula set words by Ben Okri.

Frank Bridge's Music, when soft voices die is a relatively early work. A beautifully sustained setting of words by Shelley, it featured some interesting corners in the harmony. RVW's Rest, setting Christina Rossetti was another early work and seemed like RVW not quite being the composer we know. A quiet, intense piece, it featured some lovely rich harmonies.  Holst's Nunc Dimittis (setting the Latin words) was written for Westminster Cathedral in 1915, but only published in 1979. Beginning quiet and intense with some striking harmonies, thoughts of salvation brings brighter textures leading to a fine climax for the coming of the light, with a vigorous doxology. It is a fine, mature work, not obvious in Holst's inimitable way and deserves to be better known.

Laura Mvula's Love Like a Lion sets three poems by the Nigerian written Ben Okri. Musically, Mvula's setting reflects her musical background with a combination of both gospel singing and the Anglican tradition but woven into Mvula's own sound world. The quietly concentrated first movement, 'Like a child' combined relatively simple melodic lines with rich harmonies. The second movement, 'I will not die (for him)' used a wordless chorus over which were quasi-Gospel style solos, with the opening music returning, this time with words. Finally, 'Love like a lion' used brightly rhythmic music with hints of gospel in contrast to slower lyrical moments. Laura Mvula created a striking series of sound-worlds, and a piece which I am sure will develop popularity with choirs.

Finally, we came to Parry's Songs of Farewell, settings of texts by Henry Vaughan, John Davies, Thomas Campion, John Gibson Lockhart, John Donne and Psalm 39, which Parry worked on between 1913 and 1915. Whilst the pieces were premiered severally in 1916, the work only received its first complete performance in 1919, after Parry's death.

The work is a meditation on life and death, from Parry's point of view as a free-thinker and illuminated both by his illness and by the destruction of civilisation around him. But the surprising thing about the work is that it is not gloomily elegiac and melancholic in tone. Sakari Oramo drew a poetic and thoughtful performance from the 24-strong BBC Singers, and all were constantly alert to the pieces frequent changes of texture and emotion. This was a highly fluid performance, which brought out the quicksilver nature of Parry's writing.

'My soul, there is a country' started quietly, beautifully blended with a nice fluidity to the phrasing and attention to the shaping of the words, all culminating in the strong final verse. 'I know my soul hath power to know all things' used the strongly homophonic setting to create a dramatic narrative where the meaning of the words was paramount. 'Never weather-beaten sail' came over as a beautifully shaped part-song, whilst in 'There is an old belief' Parry's gradual thickening of the textures, by adding an extra part to each of the final four movements, started to tell with this movement have a lovely depth to the texture. Oramo gave it a sober, reflective cast with the final verse full of firmness rising to a powerful and striking climax. 'At the round earth's imagined corners' had a vibrant sound, creating a vividly descriptive exposition of the text with great attention to detail. The music moved quickly between emotions, passing swiftly from vivid drama to quiet pause. The final, and longest movement, 'Lord, let me know mine end' is a setting of words from Psalm 39 for double choir. For all the richness and texture, this was a deep and meaningful account with the words of prime importance. Overall it was quietly intense, with quick flare-ups of emotion, and Oramo drew a gripping performance from the choir.

We have largely come out of the view of Parry's music as simply last gasp Victorianism. Hearing a conductor like Sakari Oramo, who comes from another strongly choral tradition in Finland, performing these works gave a strikingly different view as Oramo drew out the thoughtful poetry and reflective nature of Parry's writing.

The concert is on BBC iPlayer for 30 days and is well worth catching.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Bayreuth’s Tristan und Isolde was grand and convincing in every conceivable way harbouring a sting in its tail (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Keeping her secrets: Tom Randle's Love Me To Death explores the mysterious Ruth Ellis (★★★★)  - Opera review
  • The Opera That Goes Wrong: Tête à Tête's Toscatastrophe!  - Opera review
  • Bayreuth’s Parsifal provided a sensitive portrayal of humanity overcoming adversity (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • As important as ever: Opera Rara's mission to rediscover, record and perform rare opera  - interview
  • Hubert Parry - the complete string quartets (★★★)  - CD review
  • Out of the mouths of babes: Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (★★★)  - Opera review
  • if there were water - Two different, yet challenging contemporary choral pieces in this striking disc from the American choir, The Crossing (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bayreuth’s new production of Lohengrin has taken the Green Hill by storm (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Exploring advanced techniques: flautist Sara Minelli's New Resonances (★★★)   - CD review
  • Leaving on a high: final revival of Jan Philipp Gloger's production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Prom 42: the first Estonian orchestra at the Proms - Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra (★★★★½)  - concert review
  • A strong message on anti-semitism: Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Home

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