Tuesday night’s Prom concert, by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds, included, as part of a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, Edmund Rubbra’s Ode to the Queen, performed regally by Susan Bickley. Rubbra’s music is close to being completely unknown now, but in its day was rather successful; in 1961 on the Third Program, what is now BBC Radio 3, there were more of his pieces played than works of Berg, Copland, Ives, Janacek, Messiaen, or Tippett, according to the program notes for this concert. That all was changed by William Glock, who, apparently, when he took over as comptroller of the BBC, decreed that no more of Rubbra’s music would be played, and that had its effects on the possibilities for the music’s dissemination. I have to say that absolutely nothing about Ode to the Queen seemed to indicate that that was a bad move. Occasional pieces are usually not the best indication of a composer’s music, but although somewhere in all of Rubbra’s music (and there seems to be lots of it) there must be something to support Adrian Boult’s remark, quoted in the program, that Rubbra “goes on creating masterpieces,” this wasn’t it. The program started with Walton’s march Orb and Sceptre, which was written for the coronation; which seems to me to be far less successful than Crown Imperial, the march he wrote for the previous coronation.
The program also included another work which ran afoul of stylistic fashion, the Symphony in F#, Op. 40, of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. By the time Korngold finished his symphony and it was played, in 1952, he had already been more or less forced by events
to earn his living as a composer of movie scores, something he did quite well and was well known for. Although this provided him with a comfortable life it also was something of a stigma. The standard line about this symphony is that the fashion in music and passed him by and the music was regarded as out of step and out of touch. I was wondering as I was listening to it if the people who say that have actually heard the music (or, I suppose, one could ask, to the extent that that is true, whether the people when it was first played actually bothered to listen to it). Certainly it’s not exactly Boulez, but by the same token it’s not exactly Brahms, of even Mahler, either. The powerful first movement, certainly, is about as astringent as anybody could wish, and the second is breathtakingly skillful. The whole piece, which lasts about fifty minutes, is impressive in its score, its expressive power, and the high quality of its workmanship. It deserves to be as highly regarded as, say, most of the Shostakovich Symphonies. One thing about it which is undeniable is how clearly very difficult it. This performance had plenty of the necessary aplomb.
On Wednesday night the BBC Symphony and pianists Louis Lortie, conducted by Edward Gardner, presented a concert of music by Gustav Holst and Witold Lutoslawski. The Holst works were the Planets, which is, of course, very well known, and Egdon Heath, which isn’t, although it might well be Holst’s best piece, with its concise and economical sparseness and bleakness which is ultimately very moving. The two Lutoslawski pieces were the early Symphonic Variations, written in 1938, and the late Piano Concerto, from fifty years later. The Symphonic Variations was his first (srviving) orchestral work and certainly demonstrates a mastery of writing for orchestra. The Piano Concerto is in many respects an old fashion barn burning piano concerto embellished with certainly surface modernisms. It’s mostly a roaring good time. The performances were all excellent and compelling.
For many years now the BBC has had a program congruent with the Proms season called Inspire. Although not exclusively so, it seems to be mainly a competition for precollege composers in two categories, 12-16 years old and 17 and 18. The winning and high commended works are presented in a concert whose format has changed over the years: early on there was more talking by the young composers (I remember one where, when asked about their major influences, every one of the composers said Copland and John Adams), then there was format with a presenter (another one I remember was introduced by the, on that occasion anyway, extremely loquacious Errolyn Wallen.) The past few summers these programs have happened before I was around, but I did catch this summer’s installment, which was on Wednesday afternoon in the concert hall of the Royal College of Music. The eleven works were performed by members of the Aurora Orchestra, sometimes by conducted by Nicholas Collon, who also introduced them and their composers, none of whom spoke. There was a fairly wide range of styles on display, ranging from the poppy through a sort of eclectic collage-ism to the fairly modernist, with a wider range of influences cited in the program notes than Copland and Adams. The composers were Thomas Brown, Thomas Gibbs, Grace Evangeline Mason (senior winners), Bertie Baigent, Christopher Mitchell, Tom Daley (senior high commended), Lucinda Rimmer, Louie Finley McIver (junior winners), Alexander Dakin, Leon Kidd, and Matthew Jackson.
The Proms concerts dominate the London musical scene when they’re going on, but the Proms is not the only thing happening. There is currently ongoing a three week festival presented by the Tête a Tête opera company at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. One of the five events on Thursday night was a performance entitled Fossils and Monsters whose performers were mezzo-soprano Alison Wells and clarinettists Ian Mitchell and Catriona Scott. The program actually was comprised of four works, two for singer and two for clarinets. The vocal works, which gave the program its name were Mary Anning by Judith Bingam, which was unaccompanied, and Science Fictions by Colin Riley, which had a tape part, the former being about the nineteenth century fossil collector and committed dissenter, and the latter about Mary Shelley and her reflections in old age on her life and her famous novel. The clarinet works, which opened the program and separated the vocal works, were Fanfares by Christopher Hobbs and Essay by William O. Smith, both concerned largely with echo effects between the two players. All of the performances were technically beyond reproach and completely committed. The vocal pieces, though, did raise the question of whether merely having the singer in costume was enough to make a piece for singer an opera, or something that might be considered in any way dramatic.