Before I commence this review, a plea (or two). Firstly, that we never forget that Holst was a truly great composer; nor that 1934 was a devastating year for British music (and for Holst’s close friend, Vaughan Williams): with the simultaneous loss of three of its greatest sons. Admittedly, Elgar and Delius were old men; but Gustav Holst was only fifty-nine when he died. Considering that Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony was premièred when he was seventy (and he went on to write another four…), Holst had only just gotten started. Secondly, that we search out those other ‘English geniuses’ whose names may not so readily trip from our tongues as they should: Edmund Rubbra, Alan Rawsthorne, Malcolm Arnold, Herbert Howells, Cyril Rootham… – and that’s just for starters. There are many, many, many more out there, who – for whatever reason – the mainstream repertoire ignores; but who produced some startlingly beautiful and original music.
Last night was the Orchestra of the Swan’s 21st Anniversary Concert: and it started with the suitably celebratory St Paul’s Suite by that man Holst. I think I must have just sat there with a silly grin on my face (I know my eyes were frequently closed) – this was one of those concerts where the standard of music and playing were so high, so well-matched, that it was a bit like sitting on top of your favourite mountain, gazing at your favourite view… – for this was, as was all of the evening, radiant perfection. (And, since you ask: Skiddaw.)
The final movement of this, The Dargason – especially with its first, extremely gentle rendition of Greensleeves; followed by its repeat soaring across summer wheat fields, swifts a-calling… – was, though, an utter triumph! Everything one could ever want from an English string band… and more. (Which should probably be OOTS’ slogan! Or something.)
But, if Holst’s St Paul’s Suite is guaranteed to bring immediate tears of joy to your face; then Vaughan Williams’ ‘Tallis Fantasia’ (fully Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis) presents a surety of rather a more devastating nature – though no less instantaneous. Twice, now, have I walked into OOTS rehearsing this: and it is one of the many marks of their utter professionalism (and wondrousness) that, no matter how many times they perform it, they will never be content with their interpretation; neither would they ever want it to become lazy, or set in stone. Therefore David spent a substantial amount of time finessing it, in the afternoon: phrases, stresses, new ways of hearing and seeing.
It only dawned on me, in the interval, how cleverly-programmed this concert was, too: demonstrating OOTS’ core strengths – its beautiful, almost-sparse strings (although with the incredible power to become rich and full, when needed; and to blast the roof of Stratford ArtsHouse far into the stratosphere) alone in the first half; before launching a full-frontal, fully-armed attack with its instrumental virtuosity and depth in the second.
Well, after posting my review of Dvořák’s Eighth from Saturday night – and it seems, getting it completely wrong… – it was good to read last night’s programme notes, and find someone who agrees with me that Vaughan Williams’ Fifth is, in all other than name (and timing), a ‘war’ symphony: however, gentle or pastoral it can feel, slotted in between the tirades of the severe Fourth and violent, vehement Sixth. But, perhaps, this is Vaughan Williams’ moment of ‘big stick ideology’: for, to me, after living through a war where he saw most of his friends – most of England’s outstanding artistic potential – slaughtered, the Fourth was his warning that worse was to come; the Fifth, premièred in 1943, his expression of anger, his regret, that no-one heeded that wake-up call, that he did not shout loud enough; the Sixth, the vitriol of an old man, his ‘I told you so’; his exasperation and despair at the repeated horrendous loss of life; the inability to learn lessons, or to put them into action until too late.
He may not have been a practising Christian: but I know (to my own cost) that you can take the chorister out of the cathedral, but you cannot take the cathedral etc.. In Vaughan Williams’ case, despite being related to Charles Darwin, the Church (and the vicarage) ran deep through his veins throughout his life; as did his love of the Authorised Version of the Bible and English church music: especially that of the 16th Century (hence both the ‘Tallis Fantasia’ and the English Hymnal – which he compiled, as well as donated four of his own compositions).
Basing the Fifth on melodies and motifs shared with his later opera, The Pilgrim’s Progress, must also lend it something of a religious perspective… – but, if so, it is one seen through the telescope of a liberal, humanitarian agnostic. But it is there. You can feel it. (Even me. And I’m an atheist.)
A small call out, therefore, to Louise Braithwaite: who opened the third movement, the Romanza – possibly the most beautiful music Vaughan Williams ever composed – with her cor anglais (an instrument at the spiritual heart of this symphony) singing so thoughtfully. Originally inscribed above the score were the words “He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death” – and these fit those few notes so perfectly, you could almost hear them being softly articulated.
Despite their lightness of touch before the interval, the OOTS strings now developed the symphonic richness required of them – although this did not mean any obfuscation of tone, or blurring of clarity. Please don’t expect my usual thorough review, though. I have known and loved this symphony for well over forty years; and have spent two-thirds of a lifetime studying it. Yes, I could write a very weighty tome on it, if required – but this is one work where I really wouldn’t want to make any conscious effort to recall the performance. So I simply closed my eyes; and let its multifaceted, multidimensional glories wash over and through me.
If it had been anything less than a wonderful performance, I know I would have noticed, though. [Sad to report: I once walked out of Britten’s War Requiem, thirty minutes in… – and that is the ne plus ultra of requiems. (And, yes, I know that’s rude. But, seriously, the performance had as much sensitivity as Boris Johnson.)]
I didn’t notice. I came away transformed; transfigured. (I came away with a very squidgy handkerchief. Again.)
All I did notice was the wide space between each instrumental line; the perfect pacing; the sympathetic dynamics; that this was exactly the size of orchestra RVW must have had in mind when he wrote this most perfect music; that he must have known that, one day, these exact musicians would assemble in this very room… – although, of course, you understand, that, until the applause, there was only me there, and the evanescent, incorporeal beauty of interwoven sound… all alone….
All I noticed were those tiny harmonious building blocks: musical motifs reappearing, transforming themselves… fragmenting; inverting; reversing; leaping for joy; scowling with menace; growing into extended melodies, which brought a savage beauty; a numinous tension… that, even now, I feel has not been quite released….
[How can black dots of ink on paper so question the soul – even when, as here, they are sublimated directly into waves of sound by humans so utterly skilful, on machines built by other humans, also gifted beyond belief? Where, in this process, enters the magic, the love, the hand of whatever spirit or god you may believe in, that eventually renders it all so inevitably ineffable…? (I don’t know. I was just immensely grateful to have been there.)]
Thank you, OOTS: every single passionate one of you who made this impossible thing possible….
I said to a friend – and member of the orchestra – the day before the concert, that this was “the second greatest English symphony ever written”. He thought, by this, that I meant the best was Elgar’s First. Actually, I meant his Second. But, after last night – and such a rendition full of belief and immersion; of consideration and rapture… – it’s hard not to consider this the greatest. (In fact, at the moment, I’m struggling to find a contemporary challenger from anywhere that even approaches its overwhelming ‘everythingness’. The gamut of emotions, emotional honesty; of orchestral colour. The dependable melodiousness: especially when surrounded by atonal experimentation… – which is not to say this does not not constantly challenge the ear… – and a tunefulness mostly derived from a couple of short, simple snippets. The steadfast willingness to meet horror, nose-to-nose, without flinching; and to meet it with resolute virtue. The ability to be truthful.)
This was the perfect way to celebrate OOTS’ momentous and hard-won ‘birthday’. With perfect English music… – but with a twist. Not just happy stuff; but a celebration of those artists with the (supposed) stiff upper lip and the whirling brains; the churned souls; and the riven hearts: reaching out into the world around them (and us). Some (only the stupid and selfish), perhaps, might take this to be an occasion for revelling in (that grotesque poison) nationalism. But that would be to mistake – nay, to twist, to contort – the point, completely. (To be blind and deaf, as well as ignorant.)
Music is a universal language: admittedly one consisting of many, many dialects. But it speaks to all mankind – and can never be stopped from doing so. Even if you disagree with me on the meaning, or relative value, of one symphony or another, at least it will have reached your heart and mind; and can be the starting point for an interesting, and lengthy – and hopefully friendly – discussion (perhaps even over a dram or two…). What’ll you be having…?!