Site review by Geohominid November 25, 2007
Performance: Sonics (MC):
|A quick glance at the title and contents of this disc might suggest it is yet another banner-waving patriotic compilation. However, a closer look reveals a carefully thought out and highly intelligent piece of programming, which perhaps originates with conductor Donald Runnicles himself.
The theme of the programme is not jingoistic nationalism, but the celebration of great British orchestrators from Edward Elgar at the turn of the 20th Century to generations following, represented by Benjamin Britten (b. 1913), Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934), James MacMillan (b. 1959), and Mark-Anthony Turnage (b.1960). All of these post-Elgar composers seem to have inherited the skill and inventiveness of his orchestrations, as splendidly demonstrated by the pieces selected here. Finally, the disc's title, 'Britannia', comes from James MacMillan's remarkable tribute to and celebration of, the magnificent orchestral tradition which Britain has managed to maintain despite limited State support. There are also fascinating musical links between these works which will emerge with listening.
Runnicle's Scottish birth and education in Scotland and England ensure that he has an idiomatic grasp of the more folk-based elements in these works. His Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is put fully on its professional mettle by this programme, as each piece could easily be called a Concerto for Orchestra. Sometimes pushing the musician's techniques and interpretative faculties to the limit, the orchestra seem to relish the challenge. I am pleased to say that Runnicles and his team enter the fray with gusto and commitment, and each of the orchestra's departments acquit themselves with honours. One might think, however, that the Atlanta's strings do not yet have the depth of tone and singing quality of the great orchestras, although they are sweet and agile. Runnicles keeps a firm hand on the music's direction and the tempi are wisely and effectively chosen. The programme runs the gamut through satire, wit and humour through moments of chaos and anguish to deeply-felt lyricism. It must have been close to Runnicles' heart.
Two of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches top and tail the concert. Notably, the famous No.1 is placed at the end, to minimise the effect of its unwanted veneer of national pride (which Elgar hated). As a finale, it provides a splendid recollection of the glories of Elgar's own skills as an orchestrator. The programme opens with March No.4, unaccountably lesser-known, but musically as splendid. Runnicles takes brisk and bracing tempi for the marches, and wisely he hardly slackens for the trios with their glorious melodies, given due 'nobilmente' playing by the Atlanta strings and avoiding sentimentality.
Peter Maxwell-Davies, a Lancastrian who moved north and settled in Orkney, produced one of our greatest pieces of musical humour in his descriptive 'An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise and Highland Pipes' of 1984. This and Malcolm Arnold's 'Tam-O-Shanter Overture' are uproarious liquor-fuelled cameos of certain aspects of Scottish culture. The orchestra take to the Orcadian shindig as to the manner born and generate satire as wicked as Sir Peter's own version with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on red-book Unicorn-Kanchana. The reels and jigs, with their notable Nordic influence - Bergen is the nearest large town to Orkney - degenerate rapidly and comically as whisky takes effect. I particularly admired the tipsy fiddle solo, slipping between dancing and maudlin melancholy as inebriation proceeds: praise for Concertmaster Cecylia Arsewski who is presumably the soloist. At length, many of the guests fall asleep to snore in various ways; the brass are culprits here and clearly greatly enjoy the unbuttoned atmosphere. Some of the guests are finally able to leave the Wedding Hall and emerge into the Orkney dawn. In a magical moment, the first rays of the sun are heralded by a a bagpiper, and the sunrise reaches a majestic and emotional conclusion.
Sir Peter requires that in concert versions of this piece, a piper should enter from the rear of the auditorium and march up to the platform, taking his soloist's place only as the piece concludes. This is a marvellous theatrical gesture, and given that I was listening to the multichannel track, I had high expectations as it works so well in concert. Alas, the engineers unaccountably seem to have ducked out from doing this and as far as I can tell, the Nova Scotian piper, excellent though he is, seems to appear on stage from the beginning. What do Telarc think multichannel is for?
Turnage's 'Three Screaming Popes' enshrine his feelings on viewing three portraits of popes by UK artist Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery in 1985. Bacon took well-known portraits by great masters such as Velásquez and distorted them as though they were screaming. "What I hope comes across is the colouristic intensity and emotional immediacy of the paintings", Turnage tells us. And indeed it does in the fine rendition. Sit back and listen to the dazzling orchestral colour and amazing textures which Runnicles and the Atlanta orchestra conjure. The music beings with hints of celtic fiddle dances (linking to the Orkney piece), and produces sounds which would chill the blood in a horror movie, while at other times beguiling with coruscating and beautiful sonorities. Listen to it again and again; you will always get something new from it. It helps a lot if you have the paintings in mind - you can find reproductions of them on Bacon's website http://www.francis-bacon.cx/themes/the_popes.html.
James MacMillan's Brittannia is another exhuberant piece, in the mode of American composer Charles Ives. Dedicated to a member of the British Association of Orchestras, it is meant as a collage of patriotic themes, juxtaposing and overlapping English and Scottish fiddle and folk motives with quotes from Elgar's 'Cockaigne' Overture, Arne's 'God Save the Queen', Cockney drinking songs, and an Irish reel. The extended percussion department has a field day, wielding all sorts of unusual instruments including duck calls, police whistles, car horns and klaxons. There are also interruptions by uncanny imitations of the unruly Last Night of the Proms audience with their whoops and toy instruments. A hugely enjoyable performance, but how much more spectacular and involving it could have been as a full surround mix!
The emotional heart of this disc comes with Britten's pacifist "Sinfonia da Requiem", resulting from a commission in 1939 from the Japanese Government to mark the 2,600th anniversary of the ruling dynasty. Not surprisingly they disowned its anti-war sentiments and Christian overtones and never performed it, although they did pay his fee. This turned to Britten's advantage, as the publicity drew attention to this deeply felt, dark-toned work, which moves from cruel battle to serene acceptance and peace. Runnicles keeps the music flowing naturally, and the orchestra, particularly the woodwind, demonstrate Britten's own peerless skills as an orchestrator, using fewer resources than the younger composers on this disc, but creating extraordinary and ravishing textures so characteristic of his works.
Now to the sonics. The Telarc house style is synthetic, rather than a natural perspective. The very first moments of the opening Elgar march brought me up short. The percussion department are, in my view, far too prominent in the mix, often covering the first violins who are also at the left. The cymbals sound glorious in DSD, with metallic hiss and detailed overtone decays. But they sound several metres high! Curiously, the timpani are rather reticent, but he bass drum is woeful, barely more than a deeper-pitched kettle drum, given loud dry thwacks which dominate the march rhythm most irritatingly. It all sounds very brash and "spectacular", but it threatens to ruin the otherwise excellent work by Runnicles and the orchestra. For relief, I turned to a DVD-A from Nimbus of all the Elgar Pomp and Circumstance Marches, recorded with a single point 4 capsule microphone at 96K/24bits in the Great Hall of Birmingham University. Here there was a natural perspective of the orchestra, with the percussion clear but in proportion to the rest of the orchestra - and a greater warmth in the lower-mid and bass range, which seems to be strangely subdued and poorly focussed in the Telarc case. It is difficult to hear and localise the lower brass, woodwind and string players, unless they are playing in their upper registers. This gives something of a ping-pong sound from left and right, where the first violins and percussion and the second violins and brass reside respectively. This gigantic pounding percussion section is only a nuisance in the two Elgar marches. In the other pieces, which make much more of a feature of percussion, the balance sounds better, although real deep bass is always rare. In the Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 - a vivid and exciting performance - I was unable to determine finally if the organ was used in the last section or not. There seemed to be slight increase of the bass which might have been the organ pedal, but nothing like the impact of the full organ spitting fire and thunderous pedal notes which lifted the DVD-A performance on Nimbus.
Despite my reservations about the sonics and rather undernourished string tone (which may be related to the dry auditorium, itself not mentioned in the packaging as far as I could see), I must say that I greatly enjoyed this disc for the sheer enjoyment of listening to an orchestra being challenged by 20th Century composers and responding so well in the high-resolution medium. There is a lot of sheer fun and perhaps it will help counteract the commonly held view that the British are all stiff and reserved!
Recommended for those who are not afraid of well-written and coherent music more recent than the Classical and Romantic periods.
I have to reiterate my disappointment at Telarc's production not using their 5 discrete channels to the full in this music. As Tacet have demonstrated so effectively, it could have been a stunning experience with a full surround stage mix, suiting the post-Elgar style perfectly.
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