In an important week in London with the opening concerts of the refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall and the UK premiere of a choral work from Unsuk Chin, a concert such as this from the BBC Symphony Orchestra might have been overlooked. But, with an absorbing link to events around one-hundred years ago, Sir Andrew Davis’s return to the Barbican Hall proved to be the most satisfyingly cohesive and intelligently planned concert in a while.
We might not think of him as such, but Elgar – if not Janus-faced – was at least much more than one-sided. The works here first showed his lighter side, hankering after childhood, in selections from The Starlight Express and the patriotic, more-public side in The Spirit of England, separating Raymond Yiu’s tribute to Anthony Burgess as well as Lilian Elkington’s sombre if Out of the Mists, which we should count ourselves very lucky to be able to hear.
Elgar’s extensive music for the 1915 stage-show The Starlight Express (based on Algernon Blackwood’s A Prisoner in Fairyland) which ran for forty performances, closing before its scheduled end, perhaps because its whimsical world or make-believe jarred with the tenor of the times, World War One into its second year. The excerpts – not separately listed and omitting one of the soprano’s songs from the texts – were a cradle-to-grave selection. It tells of a star society of children, who take the titular railway into space to collect stardust to sprinkle on the adults who have become “wumbled” (a conflation of worried and jumbled) to cure them. Roderick Williams was one of the passengers, the Organ Grinder, with two of the most substantial songs, as was Emma Tring, a little light against the orchestra, as Laughter – for the record the extra song was her ‘They’ll listen to my song’ leading straight into ‘We shall meet the morning spiders’. There are Wand of Youth Suite off-cuts which typify Elgar at his most genial; a side of his musical character that Davis responds to, with appropriate élan from the BBCSO.
The Spirit of England – composed between 1915 and 1917 – was borne of Elgar’s anguish about the War, fashioning a choral triptych from verse by Laurence Binyon, chosen from The Winnowing Fan. This is Elgar at his most earnestly noble, with soaring choral lines punctuated by a stentorian tenor, here ably supplied by Andrew Staples. With the BBC Symphony Chorus on tip-top form, its usual high standard of diction admirably upheld and with a real feeling for the words, this proved to be a suitably emotional and moving performance, especially with Binyon’s most-famous lines: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left to grow old; Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn…” in the midst of the final setting, ‘For the Fallen’. Chandos is recording The Spirit of England, coupling it with The Music Makers.
The former was suitably introduced by the extraordinary tone-poem composed by nineteen-year-old music student Lilian Elkington, commemorating the arrival, through the mist, of the coffin of the Unknown Soldier on HMS Verdun on 20 November 1920, before its state burial at Westminster Abbey the following day. Out of the Mist was premiered in Bournemouth in 1922, but Elkington’s compositional career ended with her marriage. We would have known nothing of her, as her husband disposed of all her music after her death in 1969, had it not been a chance find in a Worthing bookshop which included the score and parts of Out of the Mist and three shorter works. Unashamedly of its time, it nonetheless paints a very evocative sound-picture of the ship looming out of the mist, and encapsulates the horror and sacrifices of war.
Raymond Yiu’s song cycle The World Was Once All Miracle, a centenary tribute to Anthony Burgess commissioned by last year’s Manchester International Festival, as Burgess was born in the inner-city area of Harpurhey in 1917. It was first-performed by the BBC Philharmonic with Roderick Williams and broadcast on Radio 3 last October: such information was noticeable by its absence in the programme and publicity for this concert.
Yiu has chosen six Burgess verses and researched Burgess’s music (some two-hundred-and-fifty scores), even taking a twelve-tone-row. Yiu has an ear for many different styles and the six movements offer a kaleidoscopic musical glossary. I immediately thought of David del Tredici’s Alice opuses in the opening ‘Sick of the sycophantic singing’, with its quirky glistening and distinctive tenor saxophone timbre from Martin Robertson. Shifting strings characterise the second number, a nocturne, while the third – a love-song of sorts – features wind and percussion and inspires in Yiu an imaginary Malay folk music, as Burgess was there for a while in the 1950s. John Adams’s vocal writing came to mind here. The explicit references to Purcell and Arne in the fourth setting (starting in a stuttered whisper), induces a ‘Rule Britannia’ quotation. Bells and piano chords start the Burgess tone-row of the fifth song, a dark comment on the nature of paradise (Eden) while the Finale, channelling Noël Coward and Cole Porter, developing a soft-shoe-shuffle accompaniment which seemed rather out-of-sorts with the odd lyrics. Indeed, that might have been the niggle I felt – although Yiu’s music was ever-beguiling, Burgess’s words are rather obscure, and I’d need to hear it again to get to grips with those. Roderick Williams was magnificent (whistling too), with words crystal-clear and an easy confidence.
The concert marked the final appearance of Sioned Williams as principal harpist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra after twenty-eight years, and she contributed an article of memories to the programme.