fri 19/07/2024

CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla, BBC Proms review - expectations teased, seldom fulfilled | reviews, news & interviews

CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla, BBC Proms review - expectations teased, seldom fulfilled

CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla, BBC Proms review - expectations teased, seldom fulfilled

Birmingham’s great orchestra and its conductor are on top form, but substance falters

Mirga in mellow moodAll images by Chris Christodoulou for the BBC

Nominally, this was a programme of three symphonies. The first, though, sounded like music re-cut and pasted from a very British film and the second was a suite, albeit impressively reworked, from an opera.

The real deal, Brahms’s Third, is a very personal masterpiece, more inward than outward looking, and that, too, may have been why Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s latest Prom with her City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was less electrifying than its predecessors.

Would “the Gipps Second Symphony” have made a reappearance had its composer been called Ralph and not Ruth? She is remarkable for her very proactive place in the history of 20th century British music, but not, surely, for music itself. Though sprucely conducted and phrased, her ideas in this symphony are cut-price Vaughan Williams (one is reminded, incidentally, that he did actually use music from a film in his Seventh Symphony, but the score for Scott of the Antarctic is remarkable in the first place). You may think it's all too easy to reach for the "sounds like.." comparison, but when there's real individuality to be found, that isn't necessary.

The loose narrative of Gipps’s experience in the Second World War – the work was composed in 1945 – brings little conflict; when a side-drum starts up an alla marcia after the main business of the opening sequences, you think you might be in for a Nielsen or Shostakovich scrap, but it’s only jolly soldiers going off to war. The Adagio is sorrowful and brief before a predictable affirmation; compactness is this one-movement symphony’s chief virtue. But that’s not enough. The previous evening, I’d caught up online with the last concert of the Estonian Festival Orchestra at the Pärnu Music Festival, which ended with Swedish composer Berwald’s Fourth (“Naïve”) Symphony, composed exactly a century before the Gipps. It teems with happy personality and quirkiness; that's "modern" for you. There’s nothing original about this justly neglected work at all, though it was right for the CBSO to honour a symphony it premiered.

Thomas AdesThomas Adès (pictured right by Marco Borggreve) continues to forge arresting sounds and to master a sense of dark unease even beneath glittering pastiche. His opera The Exterminating Angel, bravely taking Buñuel’s surreal thriller of a film as its subject, is compellingly original, far more so than the relatively conservative take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest; the eponymous figure stalks bourgeois guests trapped for no palpable reason in a big house after a dinner party. Extracting music from it for concert purposes seemed as promising as Birtwistle’s work on Gawain’s Journey; in both cases the often hideously awkward, too-instrumental vocal writing can be forgotten.

Yet in spite of the Death-Angel’s subterranean lourings, a pattern not easily discerned, the four movements of the new “Symphony” feel like four unconnected mood-pictures from the opera. Prokofiev thought of calling his Third Symphony at one point “Fiery Suite”, having taken material from his infernal opera The Fiery Angel still wrapped in its creepy, cabbalistic dress. But that’s symphonic throughout, while each of these movements entertains and mildly disconcerts, the effect remains suite-like.

The brilliant Spanish inflections of the chaconne in “Entrances” outstay their welcome, though the queasy descent to the lower strings at the end is a standout. Extractable, certainly, is the double-side-drum-laden apocalyptic assault of the “March”, based on ritual drumming from the town of Calanda. Detached from its dying-lovers context, the “Berceuse” seems too vague in its disquiet. “Waltzes” is a brilliant composite, Ravel’s La Valse decomposing from the start, with a bewitching lullaby dropback before the final whirl into the abyss. All sounds gloriously rendered by the CBSO and authoritatively mastered by Gražinytė-Tyla, it’s a macabre entertainment, but without the depth it rseems to strive for – that we’re still awaiting from the prodigious composer. This was the second performance; the world premiere took place in Birmingham the night before.CBSO PRomThis Brahms Third bewitched in its inner movements; Gražinytė-Tyla found the perfect calm flow for both, took the lovely colours ever more hypnotically into another world – she would be right, surely, for the introspective side of the Elgar symphonies – and let her players sing their hearts out. That was reassuring after a first movement which only eventually flew, which needed more grounding and – from where I was sitting in the Albert Hall – better blending of strings and brass. Intrusive lighting fought against the necessary mood too: really, blood-red for Brahms? It feels as if too much this year is geared towards online viewing: a little visual help doesn't go amiss, but they've gone too far in 2021.

Surely the opening is the most difficult to conduct of any symphony: how to nail that tense and release reflex, that rolling mix of happiness and sorrow? It didn’t quite come off here, and our conductor's symmetrical semaphoring with both arms didn't seem to fit with what we were hearing (musicians find the technique unorthodox, but it usually works). Lyrical counterthemes in both outer movements could have done with a bit more air, even better articulation – though the venue makes that difficult; the final, recollected-in-tranquillity violin statement of the opening idea couldn’t be heard, only the reiterated F major chords closing the work. Admirable of Mirga, all the same, to highlight so sensitively Brahms’s brown studies and to choose a non-flashy pillar of the repertoire for a return to the Proms which merited some reflection.


A small point, but RVW's Sinfonia Antarctica was actually his 7th symphony. I half agree with you about the Gipps, but I want to hear it again. She was a child genius - admitted to RCM aged 15 years. And the CBSO almost owes her a moral debt as she was effectively run out of the orchestra by tittle tattle and gossip.

That was corrected some while ago. And a moral debt is one thing, but wasting 20 minutes of a valuable Prom on a second-rate work is something else. Still, we've had worse premieres and it was engagingly played.

One might argue that the CBSO (it was the CBO at the time) discharged any "moral debt" it had to Gipps back in the 1940s and 50s by performing two of her symphonies, her piano concerto, and numerous of her shorter orchestral works, on several occasions - no small vote of confidence in a young composer. Certainly, her music fared better in CBO / CBSO programmes of that period than that of (say) Lutyens, Tippett or Britten. The story of her time in the orchestra is an unhappy one; sadly, then as now, it's not unusual for enthusiastic and gifted young orchestral players to be marginalised by older members - especially when (as in Gipps's case) they are very openly a particular favourite and close friend (and the suggestion that she was anything more does seem to have been purely malicious) of the principal conductor. Yet she continued to work for the organisation in other capacities - notably editing a very lively and outspoken in-house magazine for the orchestra - during the rest of her time in Birmingham. It's an interesting subject, and Gipps is an interesting person. Whether her music is equally interesting is a matter of taste, and I wouldn't disagree with any of the opinions expressed here. The Second Symphony is not a work that sets my world on fire, in honesty, though I know that others have been very impressed and indeed moved by it. Nonetheless, it's surely healthy that less familiar and forgotten voices should be heard and reappraised in a series like the Proms. Rather this than a slack Vienna Phil phoning in a rote Beethoven symphony under the baton of a celebrity safe-pair-of-hands (to mention just one of the truly wasteful Proms that I've attended in recent years). I can testify that Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla's belief in this work is sincere - and I can't help feeling that our concert hall ecology would be in better shape if more conductors were so open-minded, so curious, and so willing to put their influence and artistry behind neglected repertoire.

There are surely some objective standards here beyond mere taste, though, Richard, surely? That it lacks an original voice is beyond question. It's also well enough crafted. And I don't subscribe to the theory that 'one-day butterflies', as Prokofiev put it, should have an artificially extended life. Like I wrote, I've admired all else Mirga has done - but I wouldn't trust any musician who thought this was an 'unjustly neglected' work. Right now, when we need to hear orchestras at full pelt again, why not an established mastepiece like Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem?

But David, the criteria by which we establish those "objective" standards do have to be examined and renegotiated once in a while. There's been quite a bit of Gipps exhumed of late, both live and on disc, and I'll admit that I have been slightly bemused by the enthusiasm that I've seen it provoke. Equally, I have to acknowledge that the enthusiasm exists - people are responding to this music, and I have to consider the possibility that the yardstick by which I judge these things might need to be recalibrated. I'm old enough (I'm sure we both are) to have known professional musicians (and critics) who despaired of the "Mahler fad" and the gullibility of its adherents. Much of Gipps's music sounds to me, at best, like semi-skimmed John Ireland on an off day. Perhaps people currently like their music lukewarm and rambling (actually, there's quite a lot of evidence for that as a general trend. We seem to be in the middle of a minor Franz Schmidt revival, for one thing). But it does seem to be speaking to the moment, on some level, and this symphony is not an unknown quantity; it was warmly received in Birmingham and Hamburg in 2019, and the Rumon Gamba recording the previous year was well reviewed by some very credible colleagues. That being so, I'd be foolish not to entertain the possibility (at least) that I've missed something. I'm hoping I've got a few years left before I join the glorious critical rearguard, fighting a heroic losing battle - like so many distinguished colleagues before me - against the tide of the general taste. I have absolutely no intention of going in to bat for Gipps’s music. But equally, if rarities are to be hauled out, dusted down and presented for our re-appraisal (as they absolutely should be), the Proms strikes me as an ideal forum in which to do that.

The review reflects how I feel about it. Whatever people like in a completely unoriginal work doesn't interest me. To bring seriously major voices like Mahler and - yes, the late-romantic but originl Franz Schmidt into it seems beside the point. I'm reminded of when Shostakovich, at the premiere of yet another 'one-day-butterfly' work by the Borodin Quarter, asked them if they'd played all the Haydn quartets yet (they hadn't). The comparison is meaningful because I certainly don't know all 104 of Haydn's symphonies, but I know there are beautiful and original things in all the ones I've recently heard for the first time. Let's not waste time on the second-rate when the entire output of the greats still isn't heard often, if at all.

I thought the Ruth Gipps symphony must have sounded folksy and obvious even in 1946. We heard a few unexpected dissonances, but there was very little development of the recurring theme with its vaguely Irish inflections (as it seemed to me). The rattling percussion had a vamp-till-ready feel. I can't help thinking that there must be better advertisements for Gipps than this work. We remember composers for the distinctive signal they give off. Even if others sounded like them in their own day, we retain one as a representative of that sound world. Gipps doesn't sound enough like herself (on the evidence of this symphony) to warrant a revival. There is plenty of good music from the last 80 years that is rarely programmed at the Proms, some of it written by women with a stronger claim on our attention.

The thing is that many (by no means all) of the 'unjustly neglected composers' HAVE no personal identity. An idea from an individual soul strikes the listener; the generic does not, however pleasing. We've had way too much subfusc British (and American) music revived, and I'm afraid this is in that category.

Re the passing comment about the irritating lighting. This year's televised concerts have been almost unendurable because of the dark blue decor and gloomy lighting. The whole effect is soporific and alienating. I wonder what other readers think?

Others have already raised this issue in comments on the First Night here. I'm a bit embarrassed to say I didn't really notice then, but i was more vexed by the lighting in this Prom. And the monstrous great black arm of the giant camera which takes up half the arena swinging around above my head - kind of worked in conjunction with The Exterminating Angel...

no one has mentioned the much more spaced apart players which is surely an improvement in hearing the instruments in Brahms and worked well on Brahms 4 the next night. I know the stage has invaded the space of the prommers but the bigger stage works sonically sat at home

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