thu 25/07/2024

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis, Barbican

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis, Barbican

Elgar's Shakespearean humanity and Delius's nature dwarf a new commission

Sir Andrew Davis: Equally at home with Elgar's character sketch and Delius's mood musicJim Four

Elgar and Delius are two geniuses who only ever composed themselves - the first drawing heavily on psychology and physiognomy, the second drenching his country visions in painful nostalgia. So it made good sense to have man and nature side by side in Sir Andrew Davis's latest enterprising concert. Oh, and there was a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society's Elgar Bursary too, though this was only "new" music by the old guard.

I suspect that the BBC Symphony players could have done without Edwin Roxburgh's Concerto for Orchestra in a heavy programme, resplendently though they tackled it, and so could I.

Why so harsh? Because first you need ideas, and then you need the right means to clothe them in, and the orchestra's your toy given such a title. Not a single line, idea, theme, call it what you will, in Roxburgh's new work struck me as fresh or original, and his instrumentation, mostly thickly applied, seemed far less suggestive of the proposed "concerto for orchestra" than any Strauss tone poem, Mahler symphony or John Adams orchestral work, if we're talking about showing off groups or individuals within the larger ensemble. Very well, so maybe the 74-year-old composer's vague definition - "The work requires a very soloistic characterisation from every player in the orchestra" - might apply to the difficulty of the piece, and all credit to Sir Andrew and his players for keeping outlines and rhythms sharp and clear. But when there's not much to say, it seems like so much wasted effort.

In brief interludes of a more truly soloistic character, Richard Simpson's sterling oboe work and Daniel Pailthorpe's delicate flute made their mark. But the percussion was used in that unimaginative, washy way so endemic among many new scores, reminding me of those grim days in the 1980s when one endured so much by the British music establishment that left no mark (and I can't remember a single thing about the Roxburgh works I would have heard in Edinburgh during that time). I like to think we've entered a more communicative age. But Roxburgh, who said nothing to me at all in this piece, isn't part of it.

People will tell you that Delius drifts, especially when he's musing on the mountains of his beloved Norway, but there is strength of purpose here

Enter - hurrah! - Sir John Falstaff to make us laugh and cry, in this instance a disconsolate portrait of that most faithful Shakespearean-in-music Sir Edward Elgar, his failings and his hopes. The dark, selective colours struck us at once; the musical ideas teemed, so much so in Davis's passionate nuancing that I imagine even anyone who didn't know the episodes from Henry IV Parts One and Two pictured within would still have relished the cornucopia of invention.

Whether in the brassy swagger of Hal, the man born to be king, or the slightly troubled dreams of Jack, once page to the Duke of Norfolk, Davis's identification with the vividness of the score seemed total. He was rewarded with nimble dancing cellos, superb solo string-work from Stephen Bryant and Graham Bradshaw, and the hiccoughing, grandiloquent Eastcheap bassoon solo of Graham Sheen. The deathbed scene, our old friend babbling of green fields in the tenderest vein imaginable, was supremely moving; but I was in tears long before that.

As indeed I'd hoped to be, and been told I would be, but wasn't, quite, in the vast work for orchestra and chorus many believe to be Frederick Delius's masterpiece, The Song of the High Hills, completed around the same time as Elgar's "symphonic study" in 1912. People will tell you that Delius drifts, especially when he's musing on the mountains of his beloved Norway, but there is strength of purpose behind this progression from sighing cares to a vision of "the wide far distance - the great solitude", as Delius writes in his score.

We have to go through all that hand-wringing to reach the plateau in question, as a cushion of strings leads in distant choral voices. The heart of the piece is all celestial twitterings and awed contemplation, woodwind solos of Grieg-like freshness leading to a big choral climax as the natural vision fades and man is left to his own devices, with only the embers of the epiphany glowing right at the end. All that was missing was a theremin or an ondes martenot to swoop deliriously around the choral ooh-ing and aah-ing.

It all sounded rich and gorgeous, with Davis giving enough forward impetus in climaxes to keep any hint of torpor at bay, but the sound is perhaps more important than the substance, and no doubt this is one work which the notoriously unco-operative Albert Hall would have given a much-needed halo. Still, Delius is desperately out of fashion, and I guess I was grateful for the chance to hear this large-scale piece of nature-mysticism made flesh.

Enter - hurrah! - Sir John Falstaff to make us laugh and cry, a disconsolate portrait of that most faithful Shakespearean-in-music Sir Edward Elgar

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It was a great concert - the Elgar and Delius fantastic, and really good to read this review. But as for living in a more "communicative age" - it's also great to know, that both from yourself as a classical music reviewer, and from the words of Andrew Davis himself - as he introduced the concert to Radio 3 presenter Petroc Trelawny - that the sexist patriarchal language is still going strong. The relationship between humanity, or humankind, and Nature, might have been a bit more democratic and inclusive; and the communicative point with that being in how "correct grammar" is surely created by the people - grown moral adults - who use the language, who live and breath, think, and choose their values. But if the world of classical music still speaks as if it's in the 19th Century, then no wonder people are put off in their droves when they could be missing out on something they'd just love.

I am afraid this is one of the most disappointing and irresponsible reviews I have had the displeasure of reading for a long time. Mr. Nice, if you will allow me the small, cheap, but irresistible luxury of pointing out what I imagine is now a rather ubiquitous cliché, that is, the amusing discrepancy between your name and some of your prose, and also the ironic frailty and mediocre nature of the term when employed as a critical adjective, will be thankful that I am not about to apply the same naïve subjectivity and miscalculated assumption found in your review while penning my own. A reviewer of anything new has a vital responsibility to allow for his own elemental weaknesses as a human being when commenting on something he has encountered for the first time. After such an event, he will be left with ‘the first impression’, a peculiar and often overwhelming condition which may have little, or conversely very significant bearing on future impressions or opinions regarding the work. Either way, a first impression only becomes critically useful when combined with a long period of digestion and a more considered response after subsequent immersions in the work. (Incidentally, I would also argue this point if a ‘first impression’ review was glowingly positive.) First impressions can be important, fascinating and revealing, but are often impulsive, starkly misleading and ephemeral. This is a wisdom that our reviewer has clearly applied to his account of Elgar and Delius, but failed to observe when examining the Roxburgh. After re-reading his article, our critic will almost certainly be embarrassed by his use of hackneyed generalisations when describing British contemporary music and the trite, unhelpful, discourteous flippancy with which he introduces the Roxburgh premiere. He will also be embarrassed by his literal, archaic interpretation of what a “concerto for orchestra” is, including his misinterpretation of “soloistic characterisation”, incorrectly criticizing the work as failing to be “new”, before contradicting himself by berating the composer for his lack of adherence to the traditional “showing off groups or individuals within the larger ensemble”. A re-interpretation of a term or musical form can only be “new”. It is also strange that when our critic rightly expects composers to be “new” in their own time he also advocates Delius, who was not “new” in his own time, let alone now. In accusing Roxburgh of not being part of the “communicative age” our critic fails to realise that communication requires reception as well as transmission. It is always possible for there to be fault at either end of this model, and our critic has automatically assumed that musical breakdown occurs with the Roxburgh’s transmitter rather than his own receiver. Yet, he convinces us at the beginning that we must pay reverence to his own unusual communicative gifts by demonstrating that he possesses the supernatural power, and indeed the mandate, to speak on the behalf of an entire symphony orchestra, made from many unique, living, breathing communicative individuals. He suspects that they could have “done without” Roxburgh’s new work. Our critic has volunteered that Roxburgh is from “the old guard” and that “there’s not much to say” in the work. But, he is referring to a generation who had a great deal to say indeed, and this torch does not burn out with age. Compared to a generation of our own time who, at their worst, drape their work and lifestyles in a veil of flimsy sentiment disguising skin deep integrity in an artistic world which is now beginning to seem rather old hat, Roxburgh’s generation knew what it meant to have principles, meaningful ideas and integrity, and were blessed with the technical eloquence with which to express them. I am pleased to say that Roxburgh has lost none of this ability, continues to dazzle us with his orchestral colour and thought provoking ideas, which sound newer than anything a product from our tired, decrepit, past its sell-by-date, post-modern “new age” could ever hope to offer us. James Smith, 22, composition student, London

So, Mr Smith, you write like a not very agile oldie and you compose along Roxburghian lines? I won't be holding my breath.

This review reeks of subjectivity and aesthetic earmuffs. David Nice's spiteful tone during his woefully inadequate examination of this thrilling, rigorous, audacious, hyper-detailed and therefore unfashionable piece is unbecoming of his profession. Happily, more accomplished listeners in other publications seem actually to have heard what was happening inside this work, and have commented accordingly. It's worth noting that although Delius did not offend the present writer's delicate lug-holes nor test his aural faculties past breaking-point as did Roxburgh, he still couldn't go far further than to notice all the "ooh-ing and aah-ing." Bad work, David Nice.

Well, I won't bother pursuing the argument about "more accomplished" listeners simply chiming with your view, Mr. Jold, but it's worth mentioning that when I canvassed my students' opinions of the Roxburgh before giving my own, not one of them had a positive word to say about it. Among them are practising musicians of many years' experience. Their level of sophistication might not be up to Mr Smith's or Mr Jold's but they are, after all, the intelligent listening public for whom such large-scale works are written. For these listeners, and those who tuned into radio 3, this will be the one and only chance to decide whether the work has caught their imagination. Note I say "imagination" rather than "full understanding" - that will follow if they're interested enough to pursue it. And they weren't.

I think the young Mr Smith might benefit - as a new idea for future growth - of reading aloud to himself the comment which he's written, asking himself if he really thinks that many of the sentences are clear and understandable, and able to get across the point he exactly wants. At the moment, it really seems as if anything vital of what you need to say is being clouded under language not your own, and so I would disagree with David Nice on any kind of greater "sophistication" to it at present. I think the Roxburgh work had integrity to it, and with lots of ideas; but I would like to learn from someone who loves it, how and why I'm not responding in any further and excited way, and why I'm wanting - but in language that is direct and clear, and really from you. As for listening ease or technicality, I know that the Elgar's "Falstaff" is murder to play for strings - and you can ask the players questions if you like, who will always be seen walking around the foyers of The Barbican or at Maida Vale - which is probably what David Nice has done, and you should do to. I'm sorry I don't get a public forum reply on this site to my own comment! Not serious enough I suppose!

First, Piala - and thanks for troubling to return - since you seek a reply to your comment, I simply can't see that 'man and nature' amounts to buying into patriarchalspeak. If I'd said 'men and nature', I think you would have a fair point. But what's the difference between 'man' (as in homo sapiens) = 'mankind' and 'humankind'? As for your main point, I too would welcome chapter and verse from an initiate on what I'm supposed to be missing in the Roxburgh (and perhaps I ought to add that I do think there's integrity to it, just doesn't get over the footlights in my opinion). All I see here are adjectives and obfuscation.The debate is surely one worth having, isn't it?

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