31 July 2016

The jest I’ll show you here…

I walked in somewhere around figure 69 – molto allargando, con passione – the sound of a lone, warm cello singing one of the most beautiful portions of, to me, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written – that is, the closing section of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with its frequent tenuto emphases (the many markings are themselves pure Italian poetry); just before those devastating opening stopped chords return, and the work rushes, Allegro molto, to its astonishing fortissimo finish. This is music, nay artistry, of transfiguration – and, although I knew, really, I should not so rudely interpose myself, nor stay to listen to this private practice (just conductor and soloist, entranced together, in the atrium of Stratford ArtsHouse), I felt utterly compelled by such a siren call to do so.

Even without its transcendent orchestral accompaniment, my eyes glistened; my heart pumped more strongly; and the rest of the world instantly faded away. (I’m not sure those tears have completely dried, yet….)

I wonder if this is how those who were fortunate enough to attend the Barbirolli/du Pré recording sessions felt: privileged to be at the birth of one of the greatest musical landmarks of all time. It is quite difficult not to draw such comparisons when Laura van der Heijden – the Orchestra of the Swan’s new Associate Artist; and from whom this astounding sound emanated… – is just a year younger than Jacqueline du Pré was then (in 1965); and demonstrates a similar, remarkable maturity. Although, thank goodness – unlike so many other performers… – and this was evident even during rehearsal – Laura’s interpretation of this masterpiece is definitely all her own. (As conductor David Curtis said, so perspicaciously, in his pre-concert talk: she has made it so by first, wisely, returning to the source material – interrogating and understanding Elgar’s clear, precise, multifarious directions – rather than simply aping what has gone before.)

Additionally, she seems to have realized that, just because a work is known for its emotion, not all of that needs to be of the negative variety. Undoubtedly, there are many passages of profound, sublime sadness. However, there is also a great deal of joy to be found – and to be expressed. And this Laura did with incredibly fresh, youthful vigour. For instance, during the second movement Allegro molto staccato semiquavers – initially marked pianissimo and leggierissimo (a difficult trick to pull off at such speed: and yet accomplished with apparent ease, here); then building with repeated brillante crescendos to sustained descending motifs – a moving picture of Elgar cycling gaily along the top of the Malvern Hills on Mr Phoebus popped into my head! [By the way, there is no need to talk about technique, here. Laura’s playing is way beyond such considerations: rendering it invisible; hidden underneath convincing sensibilities; deep intelligence; and an apparent desire to learn, to understand. (Such attributes are remarkable for a musician of any age.)]

This is ecstasy, then, of a different kind: and at variance with many people’s simplistic impression of this as a work of constant gloom. [What is it I said last week? Oh yes: “comedy isn’t funny without a continual thread of adversity; and tragedy isn’t sad without the stout opposition of humour.”] What melancholy there is, though, here, is as deep as the oceans; and that return to the slow movement I so rudely interrupted in rehearsal, in concert was yet more profound than anything I have encountered for quite some time (and caused me to add substantially to the volume of those seas with my salt tears…).

The concerto may be the work of Elgar’s with the most universal appeal, but, paradoxically, it is the work of his that is most rooted in a specific moment in time.
     Elgar wrote the concerto in 1919, just after the Great War. Appalled and disillusioned by the suffering caused by the war, he realized that life in Europe would never be the same after such destruction. His first reaction had been to withdraw from composition, and he wrote very little music during the war’s first four years. Then, over a period of twelve months – from August of 1918 to the following August – Elgar poured his feelings into four works that rank among the finest he ever composed. [This is a statement I most heartily agree with!] The first three were chamber works in which he developed a new musical voice, more concise and subdued than his previous one. The fourth work was the Cello Concerto, Elgar’s lament for a lost world.
– Elgar – His Music: Cello Concerto – Introduction

Elgar said that he meant it to musically explore the image of a man contemplating the meaning of life. The music is rather melancholic, though it possesses moments of great grandeur.
– CelloHeaven.com: The Elgar Cello Concerto

Because of such history, and such descriptions (although neither is far from what I believe to be the truth), not only can one lose sight of the music’s moments of uplifting gladness, its delight; it is all too easy (and tempting; and habitual…) to then over-egg the emotion Elgar invested the score with. But, to do so – I believe – is to misunderstand its very essence.

Such passion, as Laura so beautifully demonstrated, is contained in the notes themselves (such is the wizardry of Elgar’s writing and orchestration). And, although I would never argue that any musician should not bring their own experiences and feeling with them when playing any work, I do believe that they should not then impose them on it (especially not to the music’s detriment). Performer and creator need to find a balance where both voices speak equally – and it is this quality so evident in Laura’s playing that is so utterly impressive (if not so utterly stupefying) for one of such tender age; and in such a complex work… (although I acknowledge that this is written from the perspective of a cynical old man with an Elgar fixation…).

Her thoughtful rendition showed such a keen understanding not only of this requisite harmony, but (again) of the composer’s expressed intentions – as well as how to convey them through the prisms of her own heart, mind and body. As a result, I was almost (only “almost”, mind…) left wordless.

I think the most unexpected part of her performance, though – and I mean this in an extremely positive way… – was the Adagio. Every single bar of it.

For a work I know so well that, at a pinch, I could conduct it without a score, this third movement was shocking in its emotional honesty and freshness. I truly cannot remember ever hearing it played like this: performed with such simmering fervid devastation. All I can really say – in awe – is that, in modern parlance, Laura owned it.

Of course, as beautiful as that solo voice resonates on its own, the power of the work is magnified manyfold by the orchestra. Here, David and OOTS were simply exceptional. There was space for the music to breathe (of course); for the cello to float above their rich tapestry of sound (and at its own pace); to be combative, when required, or gently (stunningly quietly) supportive. Such contrasts were almost heroic – a typically large Elgarian force mounted against this lonely, most human-sounding of instruments…. And yet, such is OOTS’ magic, that each instrumental line was crystal clear: even during the concerto’s soul-rending, plangent climaxes. This was a phenomenal performance – in every way.

After the interval, David craftily added in four short – intensely beautiful – related works: Walton’s Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V (the perfect Passacaglia: Death of Falstaff and Touch her soft lips and part…); and then the two interludes from my firm favourite of Elgar’s works: his fantastic Falstaff ‘symphonic study’. Both of these couplets are so wonderfully descriptive; and yet are not so programmatic that the listener’s imagination is rendered redundant. (Special mention, here, must go to leader David Le Page: conjuring up just the perfect amount of wistfulness as Falstaff dreams of his childhood service.)

These pieces were the pivot on which the evening revolved. Ravishing enough for us not to lose sight of what had gone before; but – especially in the second Elgarian interlude: where Falstaff is entertained by Justice Shallow in his Gloucestershire orchard (with some superb tambourine playing from the sadly uncredited percussionist) – hints of the (what I can only describe as) celebratory madness to come!

Of course, there are other sides to Elgar (he is not just an introvert hick from the sticks…) – principally that of the starched collar; bushy moustache; and Edwardian, imperial bravado: mixed with that quaint English quality of restraint. Although, of course, he threw that last quality out of the window when composing the first four of his five Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches. After all, this is music that calls, incites men to “glorious” war – in fact, calls them to die… – and yet only the fifth (composed in 1930) actually captures the tangible regret (although originating from conflicting motives) of the speech which inspired their title:

                                             O now, forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th’ immortal Jove’s dread clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.
– Shakespeare: Othello (III.iii.348-358)

That these pieces so stir us is probably due to Elgar’s unflagging belief – before the war broke his soul… – in the establishment; the world he so aspired (yet never really belonged) to. The Cello Concerto shows us such confidence shattered into painful and desperately sorrowful shards. Yet both aspects have the great man wearing his heart blatantly on his sleeve (“for daws to peck at”). Just in different ways.

As much as I love them – and for (quite possibly) all the wrong reasons – these marches are, realistically, simply, now, demonstration pieces (their sentiments outdated and almost certainly politically incorrect). “Look how brilliant my instrumentation is!” (And, of course, self-taught as he was, there is no greater, nor more original, contemporary orchestrator.)

“And look how brilliantly we play them!” (David letting OOTS off their leash of Elgarian introspection and control is a quite wonderful thing to behold: giving both the first and fourth of the marches equal, hunormous bucketfuls of necessary ‘umph’!)

What is actually downright extraordinary is that Elgar could use almost identical massed forces, in the concerto, to convey the subtle sound of his heart breaking.

The night opened – appropriately enough – with Otto Nicolai’s overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor. Although this begins with a most enthralling (what felt to me, at least like a) sunrise – which provoked some luscious playing from OOTS: particularly the strings… – from then on it is about as subtle as a brick (especially once Falstaff blusters his way in). Having said that (and you must make allowances for my dislike of nineteenth-century opera, of course), this was a wonderful, rousing, cheering way to begin this Last Night of the Shakespeare Proms…!

This being Stratford’s equivalent of the Albert Hall at its most festive, we just had to have Jerusalem – with some fantastic, spirited singing from the audience, of course…! – and then Henry Wood’s wonderfully witty Fantasia on British Sea Songs. I’m not quite sure how David kept control of some of this work’s cheekier moments – especially during the Jack’s the Lad hornpipe… (more of which in a moment…)

…but there was some tremendous musicianship from all quarters of the orchestra. Fantastic, precise brass – especially in See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes – magical string solos from leader David Le Page (again) and lead cellist Nick Stringfellow… – a gobsmacking, mesmerizing clarinet cadenza from Sally Harrop in Farewell and Adieu, Ye Spanish Ladies – followed by such a mournful oboe rendition of Home, Sweet Home from Louise Sprekelsen, that I may have just shed another tiny tear… – before the orchestra once more let rip in Rule, Britannia…!

Of course we clapped and stamped in that hornpipe. But David judged our attempts rhythmically-challenged, and far too noisome. So we ended the evening a tad more under control – …well, initially. Whatever bassists Stacey Watton and Claire Whitson had imbibed during the interval (they claimed it was only fresh air) propelled them to not only some great performances, but some fantastic grins and physical antics: which soon spread to not only the rest of the orchestra, but an incredibly energetic and rapturous conductor! [He had good reason to be cheerful: OOTS having been awarded funding from the Arts Council, this week, that will not only help secure their future, but will enable them to continue developing in all sorts of exciting ways!]

This was a great night. Ignoring the Nicolai (sorry), it featured British music at its very best – both in its composition and in its performance. Admittedly, it wasn’t what you would call a consistent programme, really: but the fact that it cheered as well as perturbed, bringing (roughly) equal measures of joy and pathos – and that we were introduced to yet another talented young artist with an undoubtedly great future – made it very special indeed. Everyone involved should be very proud. They have certainly earned their summer break!

I was originally going to entitle this review ‘Pomp and Circumspect’: because of the many facets of Elgar the concert revealed. However, it could be said that Mrs Maestro Curtis’s description of the evening progressing “from the sublime to the ridiculous” was just as apposite!

In the end, though I felt the night belonged, figuratively, to Falstaff: who, it could be said, not only encapsulates many of the qualities inherent in both of the previous suggestions; but who seemed to be a constant presence haunting the musical stage. The following speech from Master Fenton also ties in very nicely with the contents of Nicolai’s overture. Hence, my final choice!

From time to time I have acquainted you
With the dear love I bear to fair Anne Page,
Who mutually hath answer’d my affection
(So far forth as herself might be her chooser)
Even to my wish. I have a letter from her
Of such contents as you will wonder at;
The mirth whereof so larded with my matter,
That neither, singly, can be manifested
Without the show of both. Fat Falstaff
Hath a great scene; the image of the jest
I’ll show you here at large.
– Shakespeare: The Merry Wives of Windsor (IV.vi.6-16)

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