The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current and next season feature a slew of commissions with which to mark the orchestra’s centenary in September 2020, this concert featuring one such in an enterprising programme of (relatively) unfamiliar music by British composers.
Thea Musgrave’s Trumpet Concerto (2019) was premiered at this year’s Cheltenham Festival by Alison Balsom. Readers will recall the clutch of concertante works that Musgrave wrote in the late-1960s and early-1970s as forming a significant contribution to the genre, and this work picks up on several familiar traits – notably the stratified orchestral textures (with resourceful use of tuned percussion) and strategic appearances of other solo instruments, both suggestive of a scenario being deftly unfolded over its course. The intense drama of those earlier pieces may have been replaced by a more understated and equable discourse but there is no lack of incident across the five (more or less) movements inspired by Victoria Crowe’s landscapes, whose individual titles variously reflect the range of musical expression contained therein.
Balsom played with flair and insight, making the most of duets with clarinet (Oliver Janes) at the close of the first movement, then trumpet (Jonathan Holland) emerging from the wings in the Finale, so conveying the ‘‘inherent quietness and solidity’’ of which the composer speaks.
Beforehand, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla made a persuasive case for the Second Symphony (1945) by one-time CBSO oboist Ruth Gipps, emphasising the cohesion of a single movement whose four sections – the sardonic Scherzo and eloquent Adagio framed by an ambivalent Moderato then cumulatively energetic Finale – audibly unfold as variations on an evocative theme heard at the outset. A combative figure (as this reviewer well recalls), Gipps only latterly confirmed a strongly autobiographical element – essentially concerning personal aspirations at the close of the War – in this work, which may well explain its confessional nature and cinematic scoring (without ever becoming film music malgré-lui). In any event, the piece more than justified its revival – at Cheltenham and now in Birmingham – after more than seven decades of neglect.
While it has enjoyed several revivals, William Walton’s opera Troilus and Cressida (1954) has never quite recovered from the lukewarm reception as meted out (by public and critics alike) at its premiere. The composer never managed to create a symphonic suite from his opulent though prolix score, but Christopher Palmer did just that in 1988 with what is arguably his best such arrangement. At around thirty-five minutes, its four movements – each falling into three contrasted sections – afford a viable overview of the opera’s three Acts and take in most of its musical highpoints; notably Cressida’s aria ‘At the haunted end of the day’, its vocal-line transferred to viola. The tragic denouement was perhaps a little undersold, but the underlying dramatic thrust came across unchecked in this finely conceived and powerfully realised account.
A final word about the Musgrave, whose commissioning was supported by the John Feeney Charitable Trust – almost sixty-five years since first sponsoring the CBSO and whose support has enabled it to amass a portfolio of commissions comparable to that of any British orchestra.