Thursday, 5 May 2016

PREVIEW: A Scandinavian Serenade – Birmingham Town Hall (Wednesday, 11 May 2016, at 14:30)

Adapted from a review of the same programme at Stratford ArtsHouse (2 December 2015).

Billed as “a serenade with a Scandinavian flavour and a Shakespearean twist”, this is a concert which, on the surface, seems devoted to the warm sun of encroaching summer… – and yet isn’t afraid to probe what hides in the resultant shadows; or even stay outside when the clouds roll over and threaten to burst.

All of the Grieg pieces – the famous, ecstatic, opening Holberg Suite; the Watchman’s Song, from Macbeth; and his Two Elegiac Melodies – are sensationally full of life (replete with its ups and downs). Here is a composer who wrote a lot more wonderful (and sometimes darker) stuff than just his famed piano concerto; and it seems that the more intimate the setting, the greater his power. In other words: music perfectly suited to David and his merry band of minstrels (above, in rehearsal). Playing Grieg plays to their innate strengths… – so expect an inspiring, luminous, resonant clarity that only comes from such chamber-compactness: each line, each texture, audible; each dynamic, each measure, “tight and yare”.

Of all his pieces, here, I think The Last Spring – the second of the Two Elegiac Melodies – may be my favourite. As Christopher Morley – who will be taking part, with David, in the pre-concert discussion, What’s the Score? (at 13:30) – writes in the programme notes:

The poet see the winter snows melting, and nature burgeoning in the new season. But will this be the last spring he will ever see? In which case there is immense gratitude for the life he has lived, but a greater sadness for it passing.

There are some eerie, yet thrilling, icy sul ponticello moments (above), in the violins, at the centre of this, that – with unusual, long, drawn-out bowing – chill the heart. And, although officially a ‘miniature’, I believe the piece should be treated with the same reverence and import as any great slow movement of any great symphony. I find all of the Grieg beautiful (I used to spend whole days repeatedly playing his piano pieces and arrangements) – “movements that… range from the tender to the jaunty”, as David writes – and in many different ways: but this elegy is earth-shattering, tear-inducing, nails-dug-into-the-palms-of-your-hands grief writ large – especially when played by an ensemble with such power: both in sound, and in effect. Mesmerising, gripping, stuff. And all in slow-motion. (You may need to take an extra handkerchief with you!)

However, if you don’t already know it, I am sure that Sibelius’ Suite for Violin and String Orchestra in D minor will be the major revelation of the afternoon. Prior to hearing this for the first time, I must admit that I was not a fan of the composer: probably because my prejudiced (and somewhat superficial) impression (at least from the symphonies) was of someone who orchestrated in discrete chunks of sound – wodges of woodwind; blocks of brass; slabs of strings – without much layering, much interweaving. (Give me Nielsen’s bruising symphonies, any day!)

Scoring for strings, though, is an uncompromising (I was going to write ‘stringent’) art – with very little room for carelessness – everything is highly visible. Maybe it’s just my maturing love for smaller musical groupings: but Sibelius pulls it off neatly and superbly – this is so much less ‘lush’ than much of his other music. In fact, it’s a rare little capsule of rapture – as crisp and fresh as a newly-harvested iceberg lettuce!

It turns out that, although it was written in 1929 – “his last opus numbered work” – this supposedly “non consequential” piece wasn’t first performed until 1990 (and “not discovered until 25 years after the composer’s death”): so finding much information on it (apart from in the concert’s programme notes) is quite difficult. I did find this, however – which sums it up very nicely (almost)!

The Suite is in three movements…. Its gentle intent is proclaimed by the pastoral movement titles: Country Scenery; Evening in Spring; In the Summer. These are unassumingly warm mezzotints with a gentle inclination…. Little echoes of other works (often written later) do intrude. After the first two movements in which you can imagine a blend of Rakastava, The Lark Ascending and Finzi’s Introit comes a perpetuum mobile flying along like an ingratiating wasp…. The whole suite plays less than eight minutes.

Although I had the word ‘neoclassical’ on the tip of my tongue, my more detailed take on it is… First movement: ‘folksy’ – but in a good way…! The second ‘rhapsodic’ movement has echoes not only of Vaughan Williams; but, melodically, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro; with a tiny hint of Tippett (the Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, perhaps) right at the very end. This is the only movement – in its central section – that actually reminds me (as in the quotation above) of Sibelius himself – but, for me, the violin concerto. The final Vivace movement looks incredibly virtuosic on paper – it features fantastic, energetic, elbow-knackering bowing – yet David Le Page, here the violin soloist (above), I am sure, will make it look oh-so simple, as per usual. Don’t expect that “wasp”, though – maybe a charming honey-bee, instead: enjoying a hot day in the glowing light of the late afternoon; flitting seamlessly; searching for the most perfect flowers! And, oh, that ending. Just as said bee finds nectar….

Why this is not a more famous work, I have no clue. It has made me revisit my obviously-deluded opinion of Sibelius; and pay more attention to his more well-known works. But, even if this was the only thing he had written – and it is a very late piece – it should have left him listed with all the other great names of his era. Startlingly sublime.

And so to the last – for me, once problematical – piece: Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings. Until I experienced this music performed by OOTS, I’d never really got on with it. In fact, I’d always considered the whole thing just a tad trite; and listening to it like overdosing on a trifle of neatness.

To digress (and avoid the subject) for a moment: Google informs me that a ‘serenade’ is “a piece of music sung or played in the open air, typically by a man at night under the window of his beloved”. To ‘serenade’ – as you will be, this afternoon… – is to “entertain (someone) with a serenade”. 

Although usage of the word ‘serenade’ peaked in the 1940s (in English, anyway), I always think of the late nineteenth century as its golden age: with not only Dvořák (op.22; 1875), but Tchaikovsky (op.48; 1880) and Elgar (op.20; 1892), all rapidly producing melodious, welcoming (yet heartfelt) works for string orchestra – the apotheosis of Gemütlichkeit – which still form the foundations of its repertoire. (Add the 1884 Holberg Suite, op.40, which launches the afternoon’s programme – into the mix: and there’s your proof!)

The OOTS performance, as you will have guessed, won me over… – although I was listening even harder than usual! A later thorough read-through of the pages of the score revealed much more complexity and authority than I had initially assumed. And, against my will (somewhat), I have to report that I was truly “entertained” by what David (Curtis, above) has described as “intimate music for friends”. Admittedly, this is not in any way a mature work: Dvořák wrote it when he was only 33, with a young family – and, supposedly, in less than a fortnight! But it does contain the seeds of the greatness that was to follow.

“One of his most idyllic works”, it contains some wonderful melodies, cleverly constructed harmonies and rhythms… – and yet, the reliance on an A‑B‑A structure for each movement does mean that I still find it a little episodic in nature.

The first movement (above) takes us back to the Grieg, emotionally (therefore forming wonderful, tuneful bookends for the afternoon) – with a most wonderful peak climbed effortlessly just before it ends. Although no fan of waltzes, the second movement – a little Chopin-like? – feels as if it advances in torrents of joy. (David’s “friends” have made time for each other – happy and relaxed in each other’s company: just like the orchestra.) And there is a moment in the central Trio where the violins play sul G, and the cellos build beneath them, which is eye-popping. (The advantage of such a small ensemble is the clarity of every single line; every single instrument.) The orchestration here is masterful: creating lucid structures from split parts; and building to something angry, rather than ecstatic (again, with subtle hints of Elgar).

The Scherzo that follows is reminiscent, again, fleetingly, of the Grieg – especially in its migration from light to dark (here come the thunderclouds): although the middle section is about as “playful” as the same movement in Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. There is also some wonderful, cross-threading counterpoint; along with a handful of wonderful, organic tempo changes; and the ppp at the end of the ritenuto is so quiet – watch out for David characteristically holding his finger to his lips… – you may well wonder if you are imagining it…. And then another beautiful ‘hold’, before the cellos resume with a quietly confident pizzicato figure. Charm with a capital ‘C’. Then moving into mixed periods of mournful cogitation and exultant joy; before an explosion as the movement ends. Hope is regained!

The following Larghetto carries with it an air of resignation – and is far too short, for me, as a slow movement. There are echoes of one of the waltz themes woven throughout: somehow amplifying the expressiveness of the main descending melody. As the pace gathers, though, it becomes characteristically Dvořák – his gift for melody (not unlike Brahms’) shining through. Here comes the sun again…! And yet the clouds return with the recapitulation of that falling cry, before yet another build; before fading to silence. Another hush; and a perfect harmonic in the first violins that should resonate almost beyond hearing.

The Finale: Allegro vivace rushes by in a tuneful blur. Suggestions of Bohemian folksong; touches of Elgar and maybe Tippett, again; but an urgency that hasn’t seemed present before. A warm hint in the cellos of the previous movement; and the orchestra comes together for some truly glorious music. Somehow, yet, there is a hesitation. The opening theme of the first movement returns, gently, urgently; but then confidence is renewed. And there is one perfectly-controlled last rush to the emphatic end (below). What a perfect finish!

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