Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Twentieth-Century English Musical Renaissance

For the last week or two, Joshua and I have kept six discs of English music in the disc player, listening to them on the odd night when we have been home for the evening (the NCAA tournament seems to have monopolized most of our free time the past two weeks).

I have always had an affection for English music, and the renaissance in English music in the 20th Century has been a remarkable one. Great Britain has produced five great or near-great composers over the last century or more--Elgar, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Britten and Tippett--and several additional worthy ones, and much of this music I cherish.

It is interesting how national schools of composition ebb and flow. Britain's finest modern-era composers were born within a half century of each other, between 1857 (Edward Elgar) and 1913 (Benjamin Britten), and these composers more or less died within a half century of each other, beginning with Elgar (1934) and ending with Michael Tippett (1998). The following two or three generations of British composers have not been as fine as their predecessors and, consequently, the vitality and significance of the British school of composition has declined--but important new schools of composition have emerged elsewhere to take its place, first in Poland and then in Finland. Finland is today the home of Europe's most important group of composers, but I have no clue where the next important school of European composers will occur.

The six discs Josh and I have been listening to are:

Henry Purcell's "Dido And Aeneas", performed by Janet Baker, Raimund Herincx, Patricia Clark, Monica Sinclair and the English Chamber Orchestra and the Saint Anthony Singers under Anthony Lewis, on the Decca label

Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto and "Sea Pictures", performed by Jacqueline Du Pre, Janet Baker and the London Symphony Orchestra under John Barbirolli, on the EMI label

Ralph Vaughan Williams' song cycles for voice and instruments, performed by John Mark Ainsley and The Nash Ensemble, on the Hyperion label

Works for orchestra and string orchestra by Benjamin Britten, performed by the English String Orchestra and the English Symphony Orchestra under William Boughton, on the Nimbus label

Malcolm Arnold's English Dances, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Bryden Thomson, on the Chandos label

A disc of music by Oliver Knussen, performed by Barry Tuckwell, Lucy Shelton and the London Sinfonietta under the composer, on the Deutsche Grammophon label

I have always liked "Dido And Aeneas", and I have always liked this particular recording of "Dido And Aeneas", probably because Janet Baker's portrayal of Dido is so moving. She gives a very subtle and restrained but intense and heartbreaking performance, yet never once does she violate the formal conventions of Purcell's small masterpiece of the late English Baroque. The other singers are fine, too--and I have never found Monica Sinclair's sorceress to be objectionable, although many other persons have found Sinclair's performance to be unnecessarily theatrical. An orchestra of modern instruments is used, but the performance is in no way a romantic one. It is entirely convincing, and finer than any original-instrument performance of the opera I have encountered.

The Elgar Cello Concerto is my favorite cello concerto--I happen to find the Dvorak to be incredibly boring--and yet I have never heard a satisfactory performance or recording of this work. I did not like Du Pre's EMI recording the first time I heard it in high school, and I have still never warmed to this recording (and I do not care for her Sony recording, either, for that matter). Du Pre's performance seems to be too minute-by-minute, finding climaxes left and right, and it loses sight of the work's whole. The recording is also beginning to show its age--the recording lacks richness, the orchestral sound picture lacks opulence and clarity and presence, and the tape edits are far too apparent, something I have always found to be irritating.

The "Sea Pictures" performance, however, is another matter entirely. I have always loved this particular song cycle, and I have always loved this recording. It is my very favorite Janet Baker recording, and it captures her voice and her artistry at its peak, and in music she loved. This song cycle is seldom performed outside of Britain, and it should be performed everywhere, as it is the equal of much more celebrated song cycles by Wagner, Berlioz, Mahler, Ravel and Richard Strauss. Elgar's selection of poetry for this song cycle has been criticized, but the poems, with their Victorian sentiment and subject matter, are entirely apt for the music and for the period.

The organization of the five songs is masterful: an opening lullaby of some complexity, a central song of great drama and power and emotion, and a mysterious final song somehow both tragic and triumphant, separated by two strophic songs of comparative simplicity but nonetheless of great beauty and charm. The orchestration, from one of the greatest of all orchestrators, is radiant and suitably evocative in each individual number. Janet Baker's singing is glorious in each of the five songs, and Josh and I have listened to this disc over and over and over. Happily, much more of the orchestral material comes across in the "Sea Songs" than in the disc's coupling, and Barbirolli's work is exceptionally fine, which is no surprise, as I have always believed that he, and not Adrian Boult, was the greatest of all Elgar conductors.

The four song cycles Vaughan Williams wrote for voice and instruments are "On Wenlock Edge", "Ten Blake Songs", "Along The Fields" and "Merciless Beauty". The disc is supplemented by "Two English Folk Songs", also written for voice and instruments.

I am not sure what to make of this disc. First, I am not certain that these songs are particularly good, and I am not confident that Vaughan Williams was much of a song-writer. Second, I have never been much of a fan of the so-called "English Tenor", and I believe that it is fair to classify Ainsley as an "English Tenor", with all of the positive and all of the negative connotations that this term implies. Ainsley is a capable singer, I suppose, but his voice is not rich, it lacks a distinctive timbre, it has little color, and he does not compensate for these shortcomings by supplying individuality or an occasional touch of genius.

"The English Tenor" is an acquired taste that I have never acquired, and I have never been particularly enthused about the work of Peter Pears or Robert Tear or Ian Partridge or Ian Bostridge, either. In fact, it is my belief that Ian Bostridge, a current darling of recital halls and record companies, would not even have a career if he were an American singer. Ainsley is a much better singer than Bostridge, of course, but Ainsley does not bring these Vaughan Williams songs fully to life, which means either that the songs are not inherently very strong or that a better musician than Ainsley is required to reveal the beauties of the songs.

The Britten disc is not good, and this is primarily because the ensemble work is not good. Four works are on the disc: the Simple Symphony, Variations On A Theme By Frank Bridge, Four Sea Interludes From "Peter Grimes", and Variations On A Theme By Henry Purcell ("The Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra").

Only the Variations On A Theme By Frank Bridge, Britten's first masterpiece (and, according to Herbert Von Karajan, Britten's only masterpiece), is performed at a high level, and I suspect that it was the only work on the disc in which the musicians had earlier prepared a public performance. While the Bridge Variations receive a confident, polished, committed performance, the other works receive what appear to be studio run-throughs.

Britten made a mistake in not removing the Simple Symphony from his list of published works. I have always found this composition to be a bit "twee", and this work is not worthy of attention or performance, either by musicians or listeners. It is near-unbelievable that Britten's Simple Symphony was written AFTER his Sinfonietta, a much more interesting and advanced and individual and rewarding work, in which Britten's study of the scores of Alban Berg may be discerned. The Simple Symphony strikes me as the exercise of a talented eleven-year-old, and this work should never have escaped the composer's drawer.

The performances of the two works for full orchestra are very poor. This is the worst performance of the Four Sea Interludes I have ever heard, and I am surprised that it passed the producer's muster. The performance of the Purcell Variations is not much better.

Britten should have re-written much of "Peter Grimes", as so much of that score is noticeably weak. Was it not Virgil Thomson who wrote that only one-third of the score to "Peter Grimes" was good music? This is especially true of the "Storm" music, which is extremely feeble. It does not provide a great moment in the theater and it does not provide a suitable finale for what otherwise is an entirely satisfactory orchestral composition. The four note/five note motif is mundane--it displays no musical imagination whatsoever--and its thematic development is nothing more than would be expected of a first-year composition student at university. What a disappointing disc!

The disc of Arnold dances includes both sets of English Dances, the Scottish Dances, the Cornish Dances, the Irish Dances and two dances from the ballet "Solitaire". This is a fun disc, and the recording is magnificent--it is brilliant, clear, rich and natural. Arnold's orchestration comes across fully, and the playing is very fine. These dances are captivating, and yet they are seldom programmed. A set of these dances would seem to be an ideal way to open or to close an orchestral concert devoted to English music.

I have always liked the music of Oliver Knussen, and I believe that his Symphony No. 3, written when Knussen was my age, is a minor masterpiece. The Knussen disc Josh and I have been listening to contains several works, most of them miniatures: The Way To Castle Yonder, Music For A Puppet Court, Flourish With Fireworks, Whitman Settings (a short song cycle), Two Organa, and " . . .Upon One Note", a fantasia after Henry Purcell. Some of these miniatures are inspired by childhood, a favorite theme of Knussen, and I do not necessarily respond to these pieces. Further, not one of the short compositions on the disc seems to capture and hold my attention. A miniature, to succeed, must have its own exquisite sound world, immediately apparent from the first bar, and a miniature must be immediately captivating and bewitching. Not one of the miniatures on this disc is captivating and bewitching. These pieces seem to be nothing more than composition exercises, designed to satisfy a commission.

However, the longest work on the disc makes this disc worthwhile. The worthwhile work is a masterful horn concerto, in a single movement lasting twelve minutes, written in modified sonata form, that fully exploits the sonorities and capabilities of the horn within a gorgeous orchestral setting. The piece is mysterious and evocative and nocturnal and virtuosic and eventful by turns, and it is an original and highly-imaginative and riveting work. It is surely a masterpiece, and it should be played, annually, by major orchestras everywhere until it is solidly established in the core repertory.

Knussen should not, in my opinion, have devoted so much attention in the 1980's and 1990's to composing shorter orchestral works and works for the theater. Knussen has a natural grasp and command of large forms, which few of his contemporaries share, and he should concentrate on writing large-scale works, where his instinctive mastery of form and structure has something unique to offer.

Knussen does not write quickly, and his compositional efforts have been affected by the high demand for his services as a conductor (a field in which he excels) and by the illness and death of his wife. However, in the last few years, Knussen has written a major violin concerto and a cello concerto (the latter soon to be premiered), so it appears that he may have returned to writing the kind of work to which his talents are best suited.

Anyone who can write a horn concerto like this surely has a great deal more to offer in the realm of symphonies and concertos. It makes me want to hear Knussen's violin concerto and his cello concerto as soon as possible.

During our listening, Josh and I have not been listening to these discs all the way through, except for the Purcell, of course, which we listen to in its entirety. We play one of the Elgar works, followed by one of the Vaughan Williams works, followed by one of the Britten works, followed by one or two of the Arnold works, followed by one or two of the Knussen works. This makes for more varied listening, and this listening program has maintained our attention now for almost two weeks.

Josh loves the Elgar "Sea Pictures"--I think that Janet Baker has become Josh's favorite singer--and he loves the Arnold dances and he loves the Knussen Horn Concerto. Josh also likes the Purcell opera and he likes the Elgar Cello Concerto and he likes some of the other Knussen pieces. However, Josh absolutely detests the Britten pieces and he despises the Vaughan Williams pieces.

I told Josh not to worry about disliking the Britten and Vaughan Williams pieces, because he has lots of distinguished company, from Igor Stravinsky to Pierre Boulez.

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