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Season for Great War elegiacs

20 June 2014

by Roderick Dunnett


THE Britten Sinfonia, based in Cambridge, is now more than a chamber ensemble serving the east of England, writes Roderic Dunnett. It is a force in national music, which commissions and engages in new music and much more.

But it also excels in traditional repertoire, and at that repertoire's edges, as its latest outing in Cambridge University's West Road Concert Hall, repeated in the Milton Court Hall at the Barbican, demonstrated. Its compilation "Fields of Sorrow" was conducted by the Swiss Baldur Brönnimann, one of the live wires among younger UK-based conductors, who won his spurs at the Royal Northern College of Music, and before that in Basel.

What was intriguing about this concert was the juxtaposition of music preceding the Great War -a beautifully textured reading of Vaughan Williams's 1910 Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, famously based on Tallis's psalter tune for "Why Fum'th in Fight The Gentiles spite, In fury raging stout", a metrical version of Psalm 2 - with RVW's post-war evocation Flos Campi, a 1925 setting for viola, voices, and orchestra; with works by Holst; and with an 80th-birthday tribute to Sir Harrison Birtwistle (who briefly studied with Vaughan Williams). This was designed to show how, at times, avant-garde or no, Birtwistle is directly linked, both in and out of opera, with the English pastoral tradition.

The Britten Sinfonia went on to participate in a revival of Birt-wistle's "shepherd" opera Yan Tan Tethera in the Barbican Hall itself.

The Birtwistle works were, in fact, the concert's highlight: notably his 24-minute voiceless choral piece Melencolia I, evoking "mysteriously balanced stillness between opposites", and treating a melody by means of pitch-class sets (the very epitome of post-war Modernist techniques). Yet it is based, appreciatively, on a Dürer engraving, and was given a vivid performance by the substantial Britten Sinfonia Voices, trained by Eamonn Dougan. The instrumental solo parts (harp, clarinet) emerged particularly expressively to reinforce the narrative, and underlined, despite the work's overall spareness, the distinct Romantic tinge and colourings that can often be felt in Birtwistle's instrumental work.

Holst's Eight Canons (1932) likewise drew on fascinating, rewarding sources: Alcuin, Peter Abelard (a succinct casting of David's lament for Jonathan: "For with but half a soul what can Life do?"), and the seventh- or eighth-century collection of (later French-owned) Latin poems known as Codex Salmasianus.

The last, a bleak passage from Ausonius ("In the dim light grow old Flowers that were once bewailed names of kings" - the translations are by Helen Waddell), was set both by Holst and, four decades later, quite independently, by Birtwistle, pianos, vibraphone, and muted horn adding skilfully to the sombre feel of the lakeland and woodland text.


MEANWHILE, in Oxfordshire, the English Music Festival, that champion of neglected masterpieces and bastion of excellence, too, was get-ting under way at Dorchester Abbey. Not surprisingly, the 2014 festival, although a month ahead of the centenary of events in Sarajevo, was focused on the outbreak of the First World War.

I could take pleasure that Ivor Gurney, one of those I feel most drawn to, was doubly honoured on the Saturday: that night with his anthem "The Trumpet", a resonant, if harmonically slightly knotty, setting of Edward Thomas; and first with his Five Western Watercolours, a little tame but charming, performed that morning in the Abbey by the versatile pianist Duncan Honeybourne. In his programme, "Forgotten Romantics" (embracing Frank Bridge's war-grieving Piano Sonata and a bevy of eloquent lighter pieces by Greville Cooke, 1894-1989), Honeybourne also elegantly championed the Miniature Suite of Ernest Farrar (1885-1918).

It was Farrar, Lewisham-born and later the Harrogate-based teacher of Gerald Finzi, killed near Le Cateau two months before the Armistice, to whom Finzi dedicated his post-war indictment - but also commemoration - of conflict, Requiem da Camera ("War's annals will cloud into night Ere their story die"), roughly coinciding with Vaughan Williams's elegiac Third Symphony. The City of London Choir under Hilary Davan Wetton gave a stirring performance of the Finzi as a culmination to that evening's richly rewarding concert.

A link with the Britten Sinfonia's Cambridge event was that in its magnificent programme, "Flowers of the Field", the City of London Choir included Holst's Six Choruses for Men's Voices, op. 53, which date from exactly the same time (c.1932) as his Eight Canons. Again, Holst turned to Helen Waddell's quite recent translations (published 1929). "How mighty are the Sabbaths" is her version of 56 lines of Abelard, rich in psalmic optimism, resignation, and asseveration of faith in God: "Jerusalem is the city Of everlastingpeace. . ."; "And the long exile over Captive in Babylon"; and the doxology "Now to the King Eternal Be praise eternally. . .".

We were especially lucky that Davan Wetton and Em Marshall, the Festival's plucky and enabling artistic director, chose to programme music not only by George Butterworth (who likewise perished in autumn 1918), but by Cecil Coles. The latter was a fascinating figure whose potential was cut off as he helped to rescue others in that same last year of the war, in April.

Coles (1888-1918: just 29 when he died), too, had no great cause to hate the Germans: he served before the war as assistant to Max von Schillings at the Stuttgart Royal Opera, one of Europe's most valuable and sophisticated opera houses. Behind the Lines, for orchestra, was indeed written while on campaign in 1917, and since only "Crossroads Tavern", "Estaminet du Carrefour" - possibly a more colourful or even dodgy location than its title instantly suggests - was orchestrated; the rest was not. Hence others, most recently the English-music scholar Philip Lancaster, have turned their hand to producing quite outstanding, apt orchestrations of the designated third movement, "Cortège".

In a war such as that, the title scarcely needs explaining. Davan Wetton produced from his Holst Orchestra such an intense, searing, and unbelievably beautiful playing of both movements that the work remains just that - seared into one's memory. How lucky we are to have the English Music Festival! It ticks all the right boxes and hits all the right notes: a marvellously rewarding five days for all those lucky enough to catch the entire programme.

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