Saturday, May 19, 2018

Down Memory Lane: Elgarian Splendor at the Barbican

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Sir Andrew Davis,
with Andrew Staples (tenor), perform Elgar’s The Spirit of England.

Sir Andrew Davis, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Barbican Hall, London

During my London concert-going decades, before moving to the USA in 2004, one favorite venue was the Barbican Hall in the City. Following its opening in 1982, the Hall’s acoustic along with other design aspects of the whole Barbican Arts Centre came in for a good deal of stick, but I always found it an exciting place to listen to great music (the acoustics had some remedial work in 1994 and 2001). One major highlight was the series of Berlioz concerts in the 1990s and early 2000s under Sir Colin Davis, from which two complete performances of Les Troyens stand out particularly. 

So on a family trip to the UK in April, it was a pleasure to be back in the Barbican Hall at a rather special concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis (no relation to Sir Colin), whose work with the BBCSO goes back some 30 years to when he was its Chief Conductor. Three of the four works reflected the fact that the concert was inspired by the centenary of the end of World War 1, though somewhat tangentially in the case of the first. 

In autumn 1915 Elgar – aging, “not liking music at all” (according to his wife’s diary), and haunted and depressed by the war – was approached to compose incidental music to The Starlight Express, a play drawn from A Prisoner in Fairyland, a novel by the great writer of mysticism and the supernatural, Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951). Elgar responded wholeheartedly to its message of “sympathy” (aka empathy) through the redemptive agency of childhood, and within a month had written around 85 minutes of music – some 50 individual numbers including both settings of verses in the play and orchestral fragments to underline the action – in time for the premiere on December 29, 1915. 

But while the novel is an allegorical fantasy of some complexity, the play necessarily devolved onto the main plot thread (in bald synopsis, a tissue of dated escapism verging on tweeness). Both Elgar and Blackwood, who became close friends, considered the production pretentious and over-sentimentalized, critics picked it apart, and it closed after only a month. 

Algernon Blackwood and Sir Edward Elgar at the recording sessions for The Starlight Express on
18 February 1916. The inscription reads ‘from me to you! Love Edward Elgar April 1916’.

The one success was Elgar’s music, from which he conducted eight numbers for his first major recording session as soon as February 1916. The play has never again been staged in its entirety but extracts from the score have often been recorded, as well as its entirety twice, under Vernon Handley in the 1970s, and in 2012 by Sir Andrew Davis himself. The program book for this concert promised five vocal numbers, but Sir Andrew’s astute selection also included several of the brief orchestral items to bind them together, producing a virtually continuous suite running almost 30 minutes, that to me seems an ideal way to present the essence of this glorious score in concert. 

Roderick Williams (baritone) and Emma Tring (soprano)
in the final moments of The Starlight Express.
From the first measures his love for the piece and ability to invigorate his players were manifestly equal to his knowledge of it, launched here at a sparkling pace that outshone both his own and Handley’s recordings, with reduced string numbers to match Elgar’s theatre-scaled wind and brass forces only adding to the clarity.

Keeping it moving like this fended off any tendency for tenderness to broaden into sentimentality, though it was impossible not to be touched by some exquisite string pianissimi, on the very edge of audibility, or to resist the emotional tug as Elgar’s final number surged into "The First Nowell", complete with bells. In the five songs, soloists Emma Tring (soprano) and Roderick Williams (baritone) were eloquent and heartfelt to match.

l-r: Raymond Yiu, Roderick
Williams and Sir Andrew Davis.
Roderick Williams returned to the platform for the one non-WW1-related item, the London premiere of The World Was Once All Miracle, settings for baritone and orchestra by Raymond Yiu (born 1973 in Hong Kong but now London domiciled) of six Anthony Burgess poems, and commissioned by the International Anthony Burgess Foundation to mark the centenary of the writer’s birth.

Mr. Yiu’s settings had much orchestral invention (again with reduced strings), from onomatopoeic percussion in the first song, through bell-like, strings-dominated unease in the second, to a (to my ears) incongruous dance-band style finale. However, despite the alluring descriptions in the program note I found the word-setting as such – mostly angular all-purpose parlando with a larding of gimmicky syllabic repetition and whispering – to add nothing to the words, despite Mr. Williams’ skill and advocacy. 

The program note also managed to be unwontedly (maybe unwittingly) condescending about “Burgess’s own forays into musical composition” (the corrective is Paul Phillips’ ground-breaking biography A Clockwork Counterpoint: The Music and Literature of Anthony Burgess), and was curiously vague about the poems’ provenance: presumably their source was the 2002 collection Revolutionary Sonnets and Other Poems

Lilian Elkington in the 1920s.
After the interval, the orchestra was up to its considerable full strength for the return to the World War 1 theme. Before the main work, Elgar’s final choral masterpiece, The Spirit of England Op.80, came the short tone-poem Out of the Mist, composed in 1921 by Lilian Elkington (1900-1969), inspired by the arrival in November 1920 of the coffin of Britain’s Unknown Warrior, conveyed by destroyer across the foggy English Channel, en route to its final resting-place in Westminster Abbey. 

In the interests of full disclosure I should note that it was the present writer who discovered the manuscript full score of Out of the Mist in a long-defunct secondhand bookshop in Worthing, Sussex, some 40 years ago, and it has been a joy to see the work progressively taken up. By the end of 2018, further performances in Spokane, WA, and Long Beach, CA, under Eckart Preu will have brought the total to double figures since it was first played by a student orchestra under Sir Granville Bantock, Elkington’s teacher, in the year of its composition. 

This account by Sir Andrew Davis and the BBCSO was cogent and powerful, and somewhat faster than the two CD recordings Out of the Mist has so far received (David Lloyd-Jones’ wonderfully spacious handling of it with this same orchestra on the Dutton label, coupled with The Spirit of England and other WW1-related works by F. S. Kelly, Parry, and Ivor Gurney in a program devised by British music guru Lewis Foreman, remains for me the benchmark performance).

Laurence Binyon (1869-1943),
drawn by William Strang in 1901.
Following the suggestion early in 1915 from his friend Sidney Colvin to “do a wonderful Requiem for the slain”, Elgar selected “The Fourth of August”, “To Women”, and “For the Fallen” from the poet Lawrence Binyon’s collection The Winnowing Fan, all written in response to the outbreak of war and which had been published in a single volume at the end of 1914.

Elgar took the overall title of The Spirit of England from the opening stanza of “The Fourth of August”, but in fact “For the Fallen” was completed first, in June 1915. “To Women” was finished after the composition of The Starlight Express, followed by “The Fourth of August” – completing the concise, 25-minute cantata – in October 1916. 

Though “The Fourth of August” opens with a memorably upward-leaping surge of patriotism, the work as a whole becomes increasingly haunted and memorializing in tone, with valediction and funereal weight coming to predominate in “For the Fallen”, the longest and finest of the three settings. For this performance the BBCSO were joined by the tenor Andrew Staples and the BBC Symphony Chorus, whose brilliance and fervor at the outset, and hushed tenderness in the final moments, matched the pin-sharp responsiveness of their orchestral colleagues under Davis’s direction. 

This was one trip down memory lane that didn’t disappoint. 


BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Barbican Hall, City of London, Friday, April 13 2018, 7.30p.m.
Images: The performers: BBC/Mark Allan; Elgar and Blackwood: Courtesy Chandos Records (© Arthur Reynolds Collection/Lebrecht Music & Arts Photo Library); Lilian Elkington: Author’s collection; Laurence Binyon: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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