Tuesday, 13 November 2007

'Clairaudiently' my foot

Let's deal first with the last, potentially most interesting but infinitely the worst of the six concerts I heard in an overloaded week. To mark Remembrance Sunday - to which I can only come close to paying homage with the above moody image of a medieval knight in Layer Marney Church, snapped several weeks back - the Beeb decided to mount a spectacular in the shape of John Foulds's A World Requiem, last heard at the Albert Hall in 1926.

And with good reason (for the gap, that is). One so much wanted to like Foulds, with his pacifist intentions, his vast commemoration so close to the horrors of the First World War and the manoeuverings of some 1250 performers (including brass bands at the four compass-points of the Albert Hall, like Berlioz's Requiem - as if this could come anywhere close - and four sizeable choirs). But in my attempt to find out what it might be like, not wanting to endure anything along the lines of the tedium induced by Bantock's non-starter Omar Khayyam, there were warning signs. Some of the initial crits in the 1920s were damning, even though the public seems to have loved it, and the estimable Sakari Oramo, who's championed Foulds's more curious later pieces, turned down the rebirthing on the grounds that he found the World Requiem 'difficult to adapt to the modern day' and 'very sentimental'.

Not only that, but in view of Foulds's theosophical claim to receive music from the spheres 'clairaudiently', God clearly forgot to give him any memorable inspirations. The opening 'Requiem aeternam', with its shifting chords, promises well, but then the poor old baritone (the game but sorely taxed Gerald Finley) has to struggle with reams of one-note declamation. There's a ghastly, sickly 'Peace' movement for distant boys' chorus and soprano (the squally Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet), at which point my companion 'got the giggles' and shuffled out embarrassed during the pause between the two parts. And it worsened in Part Two, after a promising opening blaze and a briefly weird 'Elysium' movement to a text by the Hindu poet Kabir; the celestial twitterings have been compared to Messiaen and minimalism, but they wear very quickly. As for the message, it's all about consolation in the hereafter for the fallen, and hardly deals at all with the suffering or the pity of war. Let anyone compare it at their peril with Britten's War Requiem, or even Elgar's deeply moving 'For the Fallen' from The Spirit of England . Was I glad we at least had a chance to make up our own minds? Given the waste of those large (and generally splendid) forces, not at all.

The BBCSO had already given a rather more incandescent performance, again to a two-thirds empty but very enthusiastic Barbican Hall audience, on Wednesday. I think it's the first time I've seen the wild, impassioned Yan Pascal Tortelier in action. The way he threw himself, scoreless, into Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra struck an acquaintance who collared me afterwards as a bit like 'masturbating in public'. To which I replied that this was clearly not self-love, but love for the piece in question. With its mighty Passacaglia and its weird disjunction between nursery-songlike folk tunes and more complex backdrops, the Lutoslawski fitted in well with the vast, fresh canvas of Britten's Violin Concerto, played with huge spirit if not quite all the notes by Daniel Hope. And the Britten related well, of course, to his master Frank Bridge's most familiar voice in The Sea. There was a lively crowd for the pre-performance talk, with good observations from the punters. One girl was especially fascinated by John Adams's interest in Britten, re his performance of the Cello Symphony a couple of weeks ago, and wondered what he'd taken for Nixon in China- which led to a brief but healthy debate about word-setting and speech-melody in contemporary opera (very rare to find it done well).

I was also reconciled to the larger, more fashion-conscious crowds who, in contrast, filled the hall for the rest of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Sibelius cycle as the interpretations waxed in conviction. His taut precision worked wonders on the First Symphony, and he really grasped the revised Fifth's mighty two-in-one first movement, only nearly to spoil it all by a much slower tempo for the great swinging motif in the finale: surely the point is that it unfolds at the same speed as what's gone before, to show what lies beneath? No matter: the end was predictably thrilling and for once there was sensitivity in the encore, 'The Death of Melisande'. It turned me back to listening to all sorts of Sibelius on Sunday morning: isn't he of the essence, and how well he succeeds in so many spheres, especially light, tuneful incidental music.

Two less glitzy but nevertheless pleasant events rounded out the six-day picture: a concert for Flanders in the glorious surroundings of the Chelsea Royal Hospital Chapel, shared between an early-music quartet and a teenage pianist (daughter of the consort's theorbist) who showed poetry in a Rachmaninov Etude-Tableau but took on too much heavy stuff. The real pleasure of this event was to press the flesh of Baroness Shirley Williams, a delightful and friendly conversationalist. And the lavish reception, laid on by a shipped-in Belgian catering corps, was certainly unexpected. On Thursday, four viola-players from the BBCSO - Kate Read, Carol Ella, Audrey Henning and Natalie Taylor - came to the Morley class. They surprised me by proving that there is original material for the ensemble, not least an astonishingly modern-sounding quartet by Telemann and a piece by York Bowen with a fine, atmospheric introduction. Then there were arrangements by two of the orchestra's trombonists, who curiously have both taken up the viola: the variations on 'Lillibulero' were witty and clever, along the lines of Glinka's Kamarinskaya. Curiously, the ladies didn't mind the small audience and want to come again, adding two more players to make a sextet.

Finally - what a week - I spent five hours closeted with a small group of fellow-critics at BBC Woodlands to decide the shortlist for the BBC Music Magazine awards. My lips are sealed on our choices until they appear in print, but I can say that the time flew by in such excellent company. I'd expected lots of generalisations - 'this is good', 'that one's out' - but someone had something interesting to say on just about every release. And it was a joy to find the two Early Music specialists, Berta Joncus and George Pratt, so open-minded right across the board (Berta's expertise on voices turns out to stem from her own first career as a singer). Curiously, too, we tended to be in agreement about what we hated and what we really loved - though there were hard-fought battles in the Instrumental and Chamber categories, both overloaded with outstanding releases. Lest that makes it all seem like pure fun, I've been asked to add a line to point out how much 'blood, tears and sweat' were spent in the process - and that's especially true for our dynamic hostess, the tireless Helen Wallace, in ordering up and co-ordinating all those discs. Of course, we listened many more hours than we were paid for, but it was such a learning process. For the candidates, due to be listed in the January issue, watch this space.

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