We’re reaching the end of the World War 1 commemorations, as the centenary of the Armistice looms over us all. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales has honoured the passing of this grave milestone with a few concerts tied into these themes. Whilst Britten’s War Requiem on Armistice Day will prove to be a truly chilling encounter, a smaller (but still vital) concert took take at Hoddinott Hall.
In Music for the Fallen, we had a concert with some rarities, not essentially part of the canon but relevant to the memorials now underway. The 1st Rhapsody by Ernest Farrar, known as ‘The Open Road’ is inspired by Walt Whitman and is a merry sort of affair. It’s pipe tune has an almost American sound, as the open road is a depiction of an extensive landscape. This is a pleasant way to open a concert, but I craved something a bit juicier.
The Elegy for Strings by Frederick Kelly is a strong work. It’s subtitle is ‘In Memoriam Rupert Brooke’, a poet who lost his life even before facing battle in this war. Buried in Greece in an idyllic landscapes of olive groves, this stunning composition sound heavily inspired by Greek modes and never usually falters in its impact. The simple use of just strings and harp makes for an initiate affair, honing in the effect is has on us. Highly effective.
More music by Ravel was a standard. Le Tombeau de Couperin is dedicated to friend who fought and lost their lives. This is typically pithy Ravel, which clashed with the rest of the programme. Even the composer remarked about how the dead are still in their silence, yet this music just feel like frothy episodes, not really leading a great deal. It’s strange that work which was written 100 years ago, has yet to have a full performance. This is the case for Charles Stanford and his Mass Via Victrix, which amazingly, gets its world premiere at this concert. A premier of sorts as parts of the Mass have been done, but due to the snobby nature of hearing the old English masters, people made the assumption that no one would want to hear this at the time of its completion.
Like all Masses, it’s a lament for the dead, (here the war dead) and friend/students who Stanford saw sign up and perish in battle. This is an intense hour has a medium-sized orchestra, large chorus and four singer soloists. Kiandra Howarth, Jess Dandy, Ruairi Bowen and Gareth Brynmor John were the intense line up of singers, not always necessarily melding into the harmonies assigned to them. Some unsure faces from a few of them, proved the uncertain demand of the work, even if already a centenary old.
The whole piece is easily defined as ‘The English sound’ in music: plummy, filled with pomp, heartfelt and also robust in nature. The piece reached its zenith with a bizarre solo for viola and soprano in the concluding Angus Dei. This stirring wrapping up of the monstrous work had moments of sadness and an angelic presence to it. The stage mix of string player solo and soprano is something which English composer John Tavener would use to great acclaim years later.
Well done for BBC NOW for putting premiering this forgotten work. Though I doubt its soothing I would listen to again.
Listen out for the concert on BBC Radio 3 soon. CD recording of Mass via Victrix to be released in the new year.
Britten’s War Requiem, performed by BBC NOW at St David’s Hall on Armistice Day, 2018.