Tuesday, 17 March 2020

My contribution to stopping COVID - Pappano, Britten, Vaughan Williams

As my contribution to not spreading COVID, knowingly or unknowingly, I refrained from going to what would otherwise have been a perfect programme for me, Antonio Pappano conducting Britten's Violin Concerto (soloist Vilde Frang, whom I've heard doing this piece before) and Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony no 6. at the Barbican with the London Symphony Orchestra. But in times like these that's when background counts.  No concert ever exist in limbo. Context matters, absolutely. Pappano's programme is particularly relevant in these times, too, because both pieces deal with almost apocalyptic situations, so bleak that even the power of music cannot articulate.

Britten, like so many others knew all too well what the rise of Hitler meant for Europe. Our Hunting Fathers, his op. 8, was a specific response to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which dehumanized Jews, gays, intellectuals and "modernists". Indeed there are very specific references embedded in the text.  As a protest against cruelty and madness, Our Hunting Fathers is so powerful that it perhaps says more about listeners still who don't get it.  Franco's victory in Spain, supported by Nazi aeroplanes and strategists intensified that sense of despair.  For many, it was traumatic, as if European civilization was doomed.  Britten's Violin Concerto is a product of that period of intense despair.  The Violin Concerto was never meant to be easy listening. It takes moral courage to write a deeply uncomforting statement like this, and know it might never be understood.  Perhaps this is why it has only relatively recently entered its status in the canon of major works by a composer who thought deeply about society and the human condition.

From a hushed string introduction, the violin rises, against an understated but ominous background of percussion and brass. Despite the lyricism of the violin line, the idea of war lurks, with menace.  Hollow pizzicato suggest agitation.  The second movement has the character of nightmare scherzo, a battery of strings, brass and percussion battling with the violin, which remains detached.The tumult is shaped carefully, bringing out the huge, angular blocks of sound, booming bassoons,  spikey details in the strings, rumbling drums, creating contrast with the violin. In the cadenza, Frang has in the past lit up the dizzying diminuendo : not a defeat so much as a “tactical withdrawal".  In the passacaglia, descending notes from the brass moved in careful procession. Now the violin line is haunted by other strings, mumuring as if heard from afar. Eventually an anthem builds up, the brass no longer against the soloist, but leading forwards.  Tense, brittle figures suggested gunfire, but the violin remains uncowed.  A particularly full-throated tutti section,  almost a chorale, violin and orchestra united in common cause.  From the strings, a suggestion of guitars : the ghosts of the dead in Spain, rising again, led by the violin, marching quietly onward.

Vaughan Williams would not be drawn on what his Symphony no 6 might be "about", but that in itself suggests how difficult it was to express the traumas he'd witnessed.  Of his third symphony, he  explicitly stated that it was "wartime music", inspired by his experiences as a stretcher bearer in France. "It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted". Thus the sixth has no cosy title to throw the unwary off track. The onus is on the listener to listen sensitively, and understand the piece from within. To hear music as no more than sound is to deny emotion and humanity. Last year, Salonen conducted the introduction so the brass seemed to scream in a communal wail of anguish. The quieter "pastoral" themes on strings, woodwinds and harps felt haunted, swept away in the tumult.  In the second movement tension built up steadily, the three-note ostinato figure at first muffled, the cor anglais offering a moment of contrast before the relentless fusillade of brass and percussion. This  gives context to the saxophone solo in the scherzo, enhancing its strange, alien nature. Its jazziness is seductive, yet it suggests disorder, the breaking-up of safe structural certainties. The bass clarinet served as lament.  The final movement, with its ambiguous pianissimo, suggests not peace, but perhaps a numbness so great that even music cannot fully express. Unlike the third symphony, there's no room even for wordless voice. Muted flutes in unison, rather than the fanfare of brass with which the symphony began.




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