Christopher Morley predicts the strong international flavour of this weekend’s classical music concerts will leave a satisfying taste for audiences.
There is a strong Anglo-Russian-Scandinavian axis to this weekend’s Midland music-making.
The Russian element comes with Saturday’s BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, when the CBSO performs a programme devoted almost entirely to Russian composers.
John Tomlinson, one of the world’s greatest basses, is soloist in substantial excerpts from Mussorgsky’s dark opera of usurpation and madness, Boris Godunov: the glittering Coronation Scene, Boris’s Monologue, and the Death Scene.
More Mussorgsky comes with one of the several arrangements of his Night on the Bare Mountain (made famous through its terrifying visualisation in Walt Disney’s brilliant Fantasia, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus comes into its own in the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor.
Russian music of a different order comes with Prokofiev’s youthful, heart-on-sleeve Piano Concerto no.1, written during his teens whilst a student at Moscow Conservatoire, and a fascinating blend of angry-young-man modernism and tender romantic melancholy. Canadian pianist Louis Lortie is the soloist.
Thomas Ades is the conductor, following in the footsteps of Oliver Knussen as one of the country’s major composers who have directed the CBSO in a programme of Mussorgsky.
Ades completes the programme with his own Tevot, scored for huge orchestra and exploring contrasts of style and texture whilst assimilating a variety of clearly-recognisable sources into a gripping language of his own. Tevot is his first large-scale orchestral composition since Asyla, which was written for Simon Rattle and the CBSO. Critical reception after Tevot’s premiere early last year was fulsome and enthusiastic.
Moving from the hothouse of the Royal Albert Hall to the airy coolness of Tardebigge Parish Church on Sunday afternoon, baritone Mark Stone and pianist Stephen Barlow make their contribution to this popular “Celebrating English Song” series with a programme interestingly slanted towards Norway and Sweden, with a tinge of the United States along the way.
The American connection comes with the composer Dominic Argento, whose “monodrama” The Andree Expedition tells of the Swedish balloonist S.A. Andree’s ill-fated attempt to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon.
After lift-off from Svalbard in July 1897, the balloon lost hydrogen quickly, and crashed on pack-ice after only two days. Unhurt, the crew began the trek back south across the drifting ice-scape. But as the Arctic winter closed in in October, inadequate clothing, equipment and preparation found them ending up exhausted on a deserted island, where they died. It was not until 1930 that their bodies were discovered, causing a media sensation.
Argento has compiled his own texts, after material from Edward Adams-Ray, Salomon August Andree himself, and Nils Strindberg.
Also in a way “rediscovered” are the Four Lost Quilter Songs, newly composed by Stephen Barlow. Roger Quilter is known to have set these texts by Shakespeare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes and the prolific Anon, but the manuscripts have disappeared. This will be the first performance of Barlow’s reworkings/ reconstructions/ homage.
Authentic Quilter is represented by his Songs of Sorrow, four settings of poems by Ernest Dowson, one of which includes the famous reference to “days of wine and roses”.
This highly interesting programme is completed by Delius’ Seven Songs from the Norwegian. Texts include poems by Bjornsterne Bjornson (one of Grieg’s great collaborators) and Henrik Ibsen.
And fascinatingly, most of these translations have been adapted for performance by the tenor Peter Pears, one half of one of the most communicative voice-piano partnerships ever. Pears’ pianist in that duo? None other than Benjamin Britten.
* Thomas Ades conducts the CBSO and CBSC in the BBC Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall on Saturday (7pm), broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
“Celebrating English Song” is at Tardebigge Church, between Bromsgrove and Redditch on Sunday (3pm). Details on 01527 872422.