Review: Renewal and Remembrance Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra
REVIEW BY Richard Amey
Renewal and Remembrance Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra, leader Julian Leaper, conductor John Gibbons at Assembly Hall, Sunday 14 November 2021 (2.45pm), soloist Maria Marchant, piano.
Beethoven, The Creatures of Prometheus overture to his ballet music; Butterworth, The Banks of Green Willow; Elgar, Sospiri (Sighs); Ravel, Le Tombeau de Couperin (The Tomb of Francois Couperin); Puccini, Crisantemi; Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5 ‘Emperor’.
When all’s said and done, does the greatest restorative instrumental music start and end with one particular composer? Who do you turn to after tragedy and loss if choral words are not enough? You’re in a trough. Who is going to lift you up and out, to live another day – re-energised, even renewed?
We don’t know until we get there, but here was Beethoven interviewed for the job on Remembrance Day. You may not have chosen these two pieces of his to start and end with, but given the insightful programming of Worthing Symphony Orchestra director John Gibbons and the enlistment of a pianist making her second WSO appearance in two years, these ones emphatically worked in an already enriching concert.
It was a Beethoven Sandwich with the meat on the outside. His meat, we all know, comes not in feeble watered-down slices but impacting, nourishing chunks.
His very first overture, exploding into life and vitality, shredding golden rules about opening chords, flicked convention out of the window. Then his conquering last word on the public piano concerto – still perhaps the most elementally exciting armoury of scales, chords, trills and flourishes, marches, horn calls, trumpet fanfares and pervading drums unleashed by keyboard and orchestra.
A true wartime concerto, composed, pillow over stricken ears, sheltering under his brother’s stairs, as Napoleon bombarded imperial Vienna in the summer of 1809. The resulting music sounding as though Beethoven’s own independent forces were calling Bonaparte’s to book. And surely winning.
The bread and butter was the prime available for the occasion: 1913, 1914, 1917 – dates of composition emphasised in the must-have concert programme brochure (1914-18 = World War 1).
Comprising the last of his own music George Butterworth MC heard pre-war before dying, unburied, at The Somme – like Schubert not even seeing 32. Then an Edward Elgar wartime song of romance – deeply private Elgar that we now know shares his acute love-pain and love-sorrow, sweet and otherwise.
Then Maurice Ravel, modernising French Baroque dances, the Great War ravaging his native soil, robbing him of fond friends now needing musical commemoration in this composition. And after the interval the atmosphere resumed with opera composer Puccini’s 1890 elegy to a suddenly lost friend, picturing the funereal chrysanthemums of mourning Italy.
How well did Gibbons and the WSO convey all this off their printed page?
The Overture was full of power and the crackling fire the mythical Prometheus stole from Zeus to heat, feed, construct and arm ignorant humanity. His mission was to enliven and enlighten man and woman with thought and emotion through science and art. Prometheus has both the help and the hindrance of various deities along the way.
The WSO first violins were precise and buzzing with Prometheus’ energy for the task. The brass, woodwind and drums unleashed the dramatic fury of his opponents. Prometheus and Beethoven win.
Gibbons made this concert a county act of remembrance, not only with a Sussex-bred London soloist, but two folk tunes from its west: ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ from Billingshurst and ‘Green Bushes’ from Lower Beeding. Both were collected there in 1907 by the visiting Butterworth, a keen morris dancer.
Hampshireman Gibbon’s affinity for the feel of British music, not least that honouring pastoral landscape and rural life-force, ensured this piece set the idyllic countryside tone which the current pandemic has restored to familiarity in many British hearts. Ian Scott’s beckoning opening clarinet, Julian Leaper’s violin, Elizabeth Scorah’s harp, Monica McCarron’s flute, Richard Steggall’s horn and Chris O’Neal’s oboe gave us the lyrical greenery as well as the spiritual uplift and poignant nostalgia.
Merely the first minute of Elgar’s Sospiri is enough to liquidise the emotions. The WSO didn’t fail him. The winds, when they j
oined the strings, were so gentle you hardly realised they were there; a subdued hue lying within another colour, only just perceptible.
Ravel’s music is becoming one of WSO’s strongest areas, with its excellent wind players. We have precious few oboe concertos. Ravel’s perpetually vibrant Couperin Tombeau comes close to being another.
Chris O’Neal, WSO principal and London Mozart Players co-principal: “When I heard we were going to play it, I was so looking forward to it again. But I had to prepare it for weeks. Ravel’s very demanding on the oboe and often has it playing high [its most testing pitch] and every phrase has to be finely-turned [we’re talking some of the most exquisite French dance music, refined yet further by Ravel].
“There are only two other parts of Ravel as difficult. Alborado del Gracioso and the end of L’Enfant et Les Sortileges, but those are only in a few sudden short bits. Le Tombeau is this way all though. But I love playing it.”
The sight was striking as the romantic and consolatory Crisantemi was played. Strings only. Horns and drums laid their down their weapons to the floor, in respect: flute, oboes, clarinets, trumpets rested silently on their players’ laps. The 19 WSO strings gently flowed and sometimes tripped along, once there was a shadowy slide, but inescapable the feel of disturbed regret and melancholy.
After all this, no ‘Emperor’ was wanted parading in new clothes. The piece virtually plays itself but it needs character from its soloist amid its inbuilt majestic sweep and waiting middle tenderness.
This was a big moment in pianist Maria Marchant’s life, let alone her career. Her first Emperor this was. An imposing goal. Did she play it safe? No. Did she bring personality? Yes. Did she sit imperiously bolt upright and sail through its challenges like a walk in Homefield Park? No, it’s too new to her in performance. And she respects its spirit far more than to gloss over it that way.
Was its interpretation pre-shaped by she and Gibbons? “No,” replies Gibbons. ”We explore the music together and see what happens.”
A long era has elapsed, of immaculate, cultured and dry solo concert pianists erecting the Emperor as a noble edifice of gilded metal and cut glass with an indescribably beautiful soft centre, a romping finale, all to be marvelled at. But many soloist noses were in the air.
Beethoven at the piano could dazzle roughly and show off more dramatically and spontaneously than anyone. He mostly played his concertos this way, having a few pre-planned sketched written notes as prompt, writing down the full piano part afterwards, carefully tailored for slightly more mortal players. His Emperor and Violin Concerto finales are his most memorable drinking songs.
This improvisatory sensation Maria Marchant achieved. Bent over the keyboard when playing, nodding and swaying in tempo when not, this could be no routine exhibition but a happening in the moment. She injected some longer solo pauses in the first movement suggested the onset of a new idea, or an orator pausing for effect – both improvisatory ingredients. Her slow movement was the Emperor’s authentic evolving hymn to love.
Her finale, the extra examination lying in wait if played fast, she took fast – and nobody has the right to expect an improviser in full cry to be note-perfect under the fingers. She made manifest Beethoven’s thrill of the ride, the Steinway her steed, the WSO the composer’s cavalry.
Cheers, whoops and whistles of audience delight and admiration could be the only just outcome.
Talking of drinking songs, expect a beer dance along the dozen waltzes, polkas, marches, gallops and other fun at WSO’s Viennese New Year Celebration Concert on Sunday 2 January (2.45). Who is this beer dance by?
Bruckner! The master of mass, symphony and organ spent plenty of time outside his religious buildings, in Austrian taverns with his younger students and followers. Making its debut at the WSO comes his Pilsner Tanz. Here’s to this becoming a new brand of beverage.
Alongside Bruckner’s amber, the WSO also parade blue, gold and silver among the many guessable favourites. Bookings at wtam.uk or 01903 206206.