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After you, George

Royal Albert Hall
09/10/2001 -  
Arnold Schoenberg: A Survivor from Warsaw
Alexander Goehr: ...second musical offering (GFH 2001)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony

Sanford Sylvan (narrator), Joan Rodgers (soprano), Simon Keenlyside (baritone),

BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus, Philharmonia Chorus, Trinity College of Music Chamber Choir

Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

Alexander Goehrís recent work has included rewriting, or as he prefers, writing again, of two different kinds of music theatre, Monteverdiís Arianna and the Noh plays in Kantan. His new work ...second musical offering (GFH 2001), receiving its first complete performance at the Proms, is a rewriting of Handelís instrumental music, on first hearing a kind of cubist (or even op-art) transformation of a theme from the D minor keyboard suite, and of the concerto grosso form. A three-note motif, based on the notes G-F-B-flat or GFH is rhythmically persistent, while the larger shapes of the suite movement and concerto are outlined and roughened up, leaving a strong sense of geometric manipulation. It isnít as accessible, or instantly enjoyable, as Arianna or the Noh plays, and it would certainly be a shock to anyone expecting baroque Musak, for which some mistake Handelís orchestral works. But if itís an academic exercise to some extent ("about Handelís procedures" as Goehr says in a programme note), it is fully justified. Handel may have been the Lloyd Webber of his day, but he was also a composerís composer, revered and studied by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Putting the skeleton of his composition on the outside exposes a rougher, less ingratiating beauty than that of his engaging melodies.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin gave a vigorous, perhaps slightly mechanical performance of ...second musical offering (GFH 2001), which might have had less of Handel in it than was really there. (The orchestra can do this sort of music, of course -- Pierre Boulez was their chief conductor for years.) They were all more at home in Schoenbergís A Survivor from Warsaw, a harrowing but uplifting eight minutes in which the narrator (the eponymous survivor, Sanford Sylvan in masterly form, a potential Moses) narrates a massacre in Warsaw ghetto which is transfigured when the victims, ordered to count themselves, instead sing Shema Yisrael and assert their humanity in the face of extreme brutality.

After a variously Germanic first half -- Goehr and Handel both German-born and British-based, Schoenberg from Vienna and US-based -- Slatkin seemed most at home in the resolutely anti-Germanic Vaughan Williams. In one way, this is not surprising since A Sea Symphony is solidly mid-Atlantic, a setting of slightly folksy texts by Walt Whitman with melodic input from the Anglo-Appalachian tradition. But Cecil Sharp collected folk songs in the shoes of the Brothers Grimm, and there is more than a hint of Dvorakís New World (and Elgar) in Vaughan Williamsí symphonic idea. It might be going to far to say that the appeal of A Sea Symphony is that it pretends very hard not to be German, but it is certainly to todayís ears well within the European defrosted architecture tradition. But, an evocation of the vastness and cataclysmic dangers of the open sea, it still has a visceral appeal, especially when performed with massed choirs whose sound matches the scale of its ideas. Joan Rodgers didnít come over too well in the soprano solo part, quite possibly curdled by a bad spot in the hall. Simon Keenlyside, a stellar Billy Budd, was terrific as the intrepid baritone.

H.E. Elsom



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