mon 22/04/2024

Connolly, West, BBCSO, Davis, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Connolly, West, BBCSO, Davis, Barbican

Connolly, West, BBCSO, Davis, Barbican

Masterful Berlioz and the valuable revival of a war requiem. No, not that one...

Sir Andrew Davis, back with the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra which he led for 14 yearsCourtesy of Chicago Lyric Opera

From the strings’ first entry, sweet and mysterious, conveying at once the erotic charge between Berlioz's Dido and Aeneas, its long-suppressed unfolding and also its transience, the BBC Symphony Orchestra played like a dream for their conductor laureate Sir Andrew Davis.

He has done the Royal Hunt and Storm from Les Troyens many times before, with them and others, if never yet the work entire, but this was a performance fit for the opera house, full of sussurating passion, “grotesque dances” and “dishevelled hair” as the composer demanded, built carefully towards its orgiastic but abortive climax, when the chorus’s cries of “Italie” remind us of the betrayal that Aeneas must soon perpetrate on Dido.

There followed the death scene for another African queen, Le mort de Cléopâtre, allowing us to hear what Berlioz took from his failed competition entry for the Prix de Rome in 1829 – especially the pulse of the interlude before the final scene, regal and solemn yet burning with regret and shame – and refashioned for Dido’s farewell three decades later. Sarah Connolly made the attempt to give noble form and dignity to Cleopatra’s outpourings of fury at her dishonour, contained at the outset and singing through the line without alighting on each invitation for the kind of proto-Expressionist disruption offered by Berlioz’s word-painting, an attempt compromised more by composer than performer. The language of the piece sits unclassifiably between recitative and arioso, evading a harmonic centre or destination as the set text circles repetitively around the theme of “mes grandeurs opprimés” – my crushed majesty – into  which the young Berlioz could already pour embittered heart and soul: I am right, but no one will know it until I am gone.

As much as Berlioz has been a running thread through Davis’s career, so has advocacy of the English choral tradition from Purcell to Colin Matthews and Julian Anderson. Morning Heroes is a now-neglected corner of that tradition, but as he demonstrated in a performance fired with the necessary conviction, well worthy of occasional revival. Sir Arthur Bliss wrote it in 1930 in memory of his brother who fought (as he had) and died at the Somme, “and all other comrades killed in battle”. In the cumulative effect of its texts chosen by the composer as “common to all ages and all times”, the piece might have become a War Requiem, were it not for… War Requiem, Britten's, which elbowed Bliss’s own commission (a setting of The Beatitudes) for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1961 out of the new building and into a nearby theatre.

Morning Heroes is similarly overshadowed, and yet hardly more reliant on the tropes of its time than Britten was on the examples of Mozart and Verdi. Long sections from "Drum-Taps" are trapped into hasty declamation and resort to a pale but shouty imitation of Vaughan Williams setting Whitman in A Sea Symphony. Between them, the long, introverted melodies and sumptuous orchestration of his Li Po setting are worthy of Rachmaninov, even Elgar’s Gerontian musings, but now seem out of proportion to the poem’s embroidery of a blood-stained silk cushion.

Hector's farewell to Andromache and Astyanax (Apulian red-figure column-crater, ca. 370–360 BC)Most personal and affecting were the work’s prologue and epilogue, calling upon Sam West with subtly scored orations of Hector’s Farewell to Andromache (pictured left on an Apulian red-figure column-crater, ca. 370–360 BC), in the patrician tones of Walter Leaf’s translation which Bliss would have known as a schoolboy, and Owen’s Spring Offensive. Owen closes with a rhetorical accusation – “Why speak they not of comrades that went under?” – of such caustic finality that no answer seems possible, yet Bliss supplies it with a choral setting of Robert Nichols’a Dawn on the Somme that, like the excerpt from Chapman’s Homer describing Achilles set fair for war in all his glory, pays ambivalent tribute to the heroism as well as the waste of those thousands who had died around him. The BBC Symphony Chorus excelled themselves in clarity of diction and singing of unflagging vigour. Now batonless but working with a smile like Pierre Boulez, a predecessor of his tenure at the BBCSO, Davis conducted with the understated authority of a man in charge and at home.

  • Listen here to the concert on the BBC iPlayer until 15 June
Bliss pays ambivalent tribute to the heroism as well as the waste of those thousands who had died around him


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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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