I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain – and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
– Robert Frost: Acquainted with the Night
Often during this rusting, rustling, melancholy quarter of the year; or when enduring this archetype of autumn weather – a cold that penetrates my rheumaticky bones, lubricated cruelly by the insistent damp – or in a twisted combination of both time and type – my usual incessant aches transform into an imposition, an encumbrance, that I struggle to deal with: both physically and pharmaceutically. My well-honed response to this is to cake myself in layers of Thinsulate and Gore‑Tex, and “Lear-like, [head] out into the dark, the pelting rain, and howling winds, to try and gain some perspective”.
But, tonight – as the clouds began to shuffle clumsily apart, corralled by the gathering breeze: revealing tantalizing glimpses of the star-punctured colander of our distant firmament – I failed. A gentle slope to the church evolved into a brutal slog: sharply concentrating my riddled brain on the pain, rather than distracting from it.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always –
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
– TS Eliot: Four Quartets: Little Gidding
Home. And on to Plan B, then. Music. Not just any old music, neither: but some of the greatest – and so familiar to me that its embrace is akin to that of a strong, comforting friend. And I know no better than Elgar’s stirring Introduction and Allegro “for Strings” (Op.47). Looking through my music collection, I discover I have over twenty recordings of this. (Indeed, it is rare for me to possess only one version of any Elgar work.) So you would think – as, indeed, did I – that no new interpretation could take me by surprise; or delight me more than those I already possess.
Until now, the version I tended to turn to – for sheer exuberance, obvious deep love and involvement; and bought because I had been wowed by a live performance at Malvern (where else) – was that of William Boughton conducting the English String Orchestra. (You can listen to A Portrait of Elgar – the wonderful collection from which this comes – on Apple Music, here.) But, as part of my burgeoning addiction to Stratford’s resident band, the Orchestra of the Swan – and having had my socks similarly blown off by their rendition, a couple of years ago – instead, I picked up the CD that fortuitously arrived in yesterday’s post: which begins with Tamsin Waley-Cohen blasting superbly (and thoughtfully – if that’s not a contradiction in terms) through Vaughan Williams’ oh-too-rarely-aired Violin Concerto in D minor. (You can also find this on Apple Music.)
This fantastic, rigorous presentation is followed by what I can only describe as the most muscular, cogent, potent and compelling reading of the Elgar that I have ever experienced. This was way beyond the distraction I required – and you may call me biased for my undoubted mission to promote our local artistic organizations: but there is a reason I count myself beyond blessed for living here… – this was an injection and exclamation of such guttural joy that I sat enraptured and still for its fourteen minutes; wiped my blurry eyes; and then immediately set it to repeat.
It is not just the urgency of the playing that hit me smack between the ears; or the spotless control of Elgar’s rapidly-varying tempi; or even the skilful dominant display of dynamics; but the transparency that threatened to utterly dismantle me… – not just between the lines, the instruments; but, as someone recently wisely wrote: “the silence between the notes is where the magic lies…”. (Thank you, Mr Curtis. For it is he….)
How to explain this? Well: there is a magical moment (one of many, many, many) in The Dream of Gerontius, at figure 120, where Elgar has positioned a pause mark over the bar-line – at the instant the soul is “Consumed, yet quicken’d, by the glance of God”; but before, as the composer writes, “‘for one moment’ must every instrument exert its fullest force” (as well as “If any extra Timpani Players are available, they must play the 3 bars…”); and then Gerontius begs, in his agony, to be taken away “and in the lowest deep There let me be”. I have heard this gut-wrenching climax ignored; rushed through; or marked simply by a slight hesitancy before the crashing weight of the orchestral universe pins you to your seat. To my mind, the world should vanish completely at this mark – but it is a brave conductor that will use his powers to make it do so.
However, at figure 30 in the Introduction and Allegro, there is a similar pause – this time over a semiquaver rest. (Perhaps the composer felt the need to be more explicit.) Again, the planet should cease rotating; the audience cease breathing. But it is again rare that this is truly, fully the case. Here, David Curtis, though, extends time with aplomb; grabs it with both hands; stops it dead; and there is – even with the beautiful resonance of St Augustine’s, Kilburn (and the skills of the recording engineer, Mike Hatch, and assistant, Robin Hawkins) – a momentous, awe-inspiring “stillness Between the two waves of the sea” before the orchestra continues, confidently, molto sostenuto, with a resurgence of one of the most beautiful, singing, melodies Elgar ever penned. (And that really is saying something….)
Modestly, in the sleeve notes, Curtis writes: “If we have revealed a little more of this aspect [music of an incredibly vitality, written by someone who enjoyed striding across the Malvern Hills] to the listener perhaps that is a useful contribution.” This is, I believe, the understatement of the century, Elgar-wise. He also worries “what can I add to the canon”. Well, here is his answer. He puts a ruddy big brass ball down its muzzle; and projects it heavenwards with such explosive force that this music will never be the same for me. It’s as if he has so thoroughly dissected and reassembled the music that it gains new Frankensteinian powers. “As with any iconic work many have their own favourite recording,” he states. Yup. This is now mine. And my heart has grown because of it.
It feels unfair not to dwell on the purity of the performance of Elgar’s accompanying Serenade for Strings, or Waley-Cohen’s transcendent soaring clarity throughout The Lark Ascending – immediately transporting me back to Chiselbury hill‑fort (from where all these photographs were taken); watching one flutter vertically into the air so memorably, delicately, strongly, insistently: with a song as plaintive as the curlew’s – fading to yet another of those remarkable silences. This is a wonderful CD: that is certain. But it is that point in time where the music stops that will always stay with me.