On the Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall on Monday, August 12, the women of the BBC Singers, along with flute player Philippa Davies and harpists Lucy Wakeford, Helen Tunstall, and Hugh Webb, of the Nash Ensemble conducted by Nicholas Kok, performed the UK premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Moth Requiem. During the short interview before the performance, Birwistle said that as a young man he had had an interest in natural history, and was particularly interested in moths. Moths, he said, have a bad reputation because “they eat your cashmere,” going on to say that of the more than a thousand species of moths, only two eat cashmere. He sees the moths as emblematic of thing which are disappearing, both in the world, and in his life. “A lot of people seem to be going from my life,” he said, “and soon I’ll be going.” He wanted to write a piece which dealt with that, but he didn’t want to write anything morbid or sugary; he wanted it to have some idea of the anger he feels about it all.

Like Ravel in Daphnis and Chloe and Vaughan Williams in Flos Campi, Birtwistle uses the chorus instrumentally. Unlike those other composers, he gives them words to sings, although making it clear from the beginning that the perception of those words is not the point. The text of The Moth Requiem is the Latin names of twelve extinct species of moths, along with a poem by Robin Blaser, who wrote the text for Birtwistle’s The Last Supper, and who died in 2012, becoming another person leaving Birtwistle’s life, about a moth trapped in his piano. The use of the twelve-part chorus is extremely varied: often times, especially at the beginning, they shadow the flute part, sustaining individual pitches and realizing the harmony implicit in its line, later that techique is used to make manifest implied polyphonic lines. At other times the chorus is an element on its own; sometimes it is in dialog with the flute. There are three parts: an opening slow and brooding section, a sort of crazy dance, during which the chorus sings the Blaser poem, whose setting is extraordinary: the words and syllables are split among the twelve parts in such a way that out of the kaleidoscopic texture, individual ones come popping out, giving a sort of ghost of the poem. The concluding section begins with some of the chorus singing very short separated and rather percussive notes, mapping into tapping on the sounding boards of the harps, which others alternate with the flute in a sustained long breathed lyric line. Occasionally they join the harps in sustaining large chords. A loud sustained coda traces memories of the earlier parts of the piece. The whole of The Moth Requiem displays a grand conception joined with an instrumental imagination and mastery which is breathtaking.

The program opened with the third set of Hymns from the Rig Veda for women’s chorus by Gustav Holst, and included a work by his daughter Imogen, better known for her association with Britten than as a composer herself, along with two pieces from the Eton Choirbook. All the performances were brilliant.

On August 13, The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, presented the first UK performance of The Rider on the White Horse by Sofia Gubaidulina. The title refers to the first of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse in the biblical book of Revelations. (“And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.”) The work is an abstract of her oratorio St. John Easter, with the vocal parts removed. The intensity and impact of the original is only increased in this more compact and concise version, which is blazingly and brilliantly vivid. After an opening section dominated by growling trombones, suggesting the horseman appearing out of a whirlwind, there is very loud and ferocious trio for bass drums (one of which was the largest I’ve ever seen; it must have been three feet higher that the–not short–person who was playing it), followed by slow and stern music for lower instruments building up in register and intensity to an enormous and enormously loud cluster on the Albert Hall organ. After a section in which, literally, I guess, all hell breaks loose, there is a hush and quiet shimmering music which leads to a blazing end dominated by brass and bells. The whole thing is fearsomely impressive, and the intensity of its conception was matched by the conviction and intensity of the performance.

On August 10 at Cadogan Hall, Camerata Ireland, conducted by Barry Douglas presented a program for the Proms Saturday Mattinee series at Cadogan Hall. The two most unusual pieces on the program were Benjamin Britten’s Young Apollo, Op. 16 and Priaulx Ranier’s Movement for Strings, both of which were more or less being brought back from obscurity. The Britten was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and was written right after his arrival in the United States at the beginning of his short stay there in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It is a lively single movement for solo piano, string quartet concertino, and string orchestra, which is skillful strangely inconclusive and otherwise too short to make much of an impression; Britten presumably wasn’t very happy with it, since he withdrew it after its first performance, even though he had given it an opus number. It wasn’t played again until after his death. The Rainier had a similar story; it had been written for a concert in 1951, but for reasons which are unclear, not played then. It is a fairly short quiet piece whose contrapuntal texture is rather clotted. This was its first performance. The Britten was followed by Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings, a very sweet and skillfully made neoclassic work. The Rainier was framed by the Shostakovich Piano Concerto, No. 1 with Douglas as soloist and conductor, joined by trumpeter Alison Balsom, and Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, which, although not completely on the same level of accomplishment and inspiration as his Purcell variations, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, nonetheless displays both an extraordinary command of writing for strings for a twenty-two year old, and the beginnings of the techniques of variation used in the (slightly) later work. All of these performances were enthusiastic and polished.

The BBC makes all of the concerts available on the BBC iplayer at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/radio/bbc_radio_three.

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