Review – Chiltern Camerata’s PARADISE LOST – PARADISE REGAINED
Words and Music Marking the Centenary of the End of the Great War
The final concert in the Chiltern Camerata’s 2017/18 season
By Joan Thackray
The late Ernest Newman, that formidable music critic, once remarked, tongue in cheek, that ‘. . . the profession of musical critic is the easiest in the world. It is perhaps the only profession that can be practised by the man [or woman] in the street with as much assurance as by the man who has given his life to it’.
Chiltern Camerata’s final concert of the 2017/18 season offered a programme of music from a period that is often overlooked by concert planners, and it contained some unfamiliar and profoundly beautiful music for the attentive audience.
All Saints Church in Marlow was the setting for a programme of words and music to remember the cataclysmic destruction of 1914-1918 and to commemorate the ending of the First World War. The audience was led into a world that exists now only in our imagination, and we were deeply moved by the inspiring words and music left to us by those who experienced the horrors of the war.
Andrew Green was our narrator, alternating fragments from surviving letters and diaries of British war-time servicemen with selected music. Andrew and Sam Laughton, the Camerata’s conductor, together chose a programme which gave the audience a sense of the losses so many suffered, and juxtaposed the longed-for pastoral memories against the brutal ravages of war. The works selected – those by Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Butterworth, Delius and Gurney – reflected that disappearing Edwardian age, a halcyon world of tranquillity, in England and also in France before the countryside was laid waste.
The programme commenced with George Butterworth’s On the Banks of Green Willow, a short pastoral idyll, loosely based upon a song that Butterworth’s fellow-collector of folk tunes, Ralph Vaughan Williams, recorded in 1909. Butterworth’s early death at the Somme in August 1916 was a loss for English music, although the title and tunefulness of this short piece perennially endears itself to listeners. After a slightly unsteady start, the orchestra settled and quickly came to grips with the piece’s bucolic nature.
Vaughan Williams denied that his Pastoral Symphony – of which we heard the second movement – was about ‘lambkins frisking’ at all, asserting that it was war-time music, conceived whilst he was on active duty with the medical corps in France and it is indeed dark music at times. Vaughan Williams may be seen as the embodiment of musical Englishness, but there’s a continental influence in his music that flows directly from Ravel. Their friendship, begun in 1908 and maintained for many years, had a significant effect on Vaughan Williams and the influence of Ravel’s teaching is particularly noticeable in the clarity and economy in his pupil’s Pastoral Symphony, completed in 1922.
Performing just one movement of a longer work can be risky when there are connections across the movements, but this excerpt lost none of its impact. The orchestra, always sensitively conducted by Sam Laughton, was never bombastic or hurried, and there were moments of rare beauty from the modal harmonies which we were encouraged to savour fully. The sound of the distant bugler was mesmerising.
Sospiri and the sombre Elegy by Edward Elgar were included in the concert programme, both well-chosen gems that reflected his musical introspection. Elgar, too, was influenced by French music, perhaps more so than Vaughan Williams. Sospiri is a short but intense piece, first performed in August 1914 by Sir Henry Wood at the Queen’s Hall, and I note that it was also performed by the Chiltern Camerata at the Wycombe Arts Festival in 2015. The then reviewer, Graham Davies, observed: ‘The programme closed with the sublime Sospiri by Edward Elgar. . . This performance showed how well the Camerata can play – the upper strings found their form here, with the cellos/basses providing suitable richness for the typically Elgarian melody – wonderful!’ On this occasion, I would not contradict.
Frederick Delius’s music is not heard as often as it should be. His 1912 tone poem On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring is an exquisite gem and the orchestra well captured its languid atmosphere. The tempo direction is simply ‘with easy flowing movement’ but Sam Laughton’s pace was just right – any slower would have endangered the lilting quality of the piece. The distant cuckoo was sufficiently muted to imply its nesting in a faraway place.
Ivor Gurney is not well-known in the concert repertoire although he wrote more than three hundred songs. He studied briefly with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College, but was troubled by mental health issues all his life. Soloist Geraldine Rowe, with her accompanist Jeremy Rowe, almost overwhelmed us with her pain in two of his songs. ‘I’m homesick for my hills again’ permeates In Flanders, and her impassioned closing words from By a Bierside – ‘Death opens unknown doors/ It is most grand to die’ – echoed around the church for minutes afterwards.
The one exception to the all-British programme was Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, a set of Baroque-style dances influenced by his experiences at the Front during 1916, each one dedicated to a lost friend. Prelude, Forlana, Menuet and Rigaudon are four contrasting pieces, always elegant as we expect from Ravel, less sombre than anticipated and, on occasion, a test of the orchestra’s agility.
Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending closed the programme. Always a popular choice with audiences and a demonstrably clear evocation of the pastoral idiom, the soloist, Thomas Aldren, brought to the piece a sense of youthful impetuosity which, for me, marked it out favourably from the many performances I have heard over the years.
The programme conveyed a languid sense of English contentment, a world of dreams and long-lost memories. Sam Laughton was able to tease out of his musicians a heartfelt nostalgia marking the passage of time, and the orchestra produced some beautiful sonorities. The upper strings displayed the warmth of tone we have come to expect, the woodwind adjusted their customary ‘sparkle’ to give a more suitable muted sound and the harp gave unexpected pleasure from time to time.
We were never left to forget, though, through the music and the well-chosen words, quite how grim it had all been. It was an evening that, I suspect, will not be easily forgotten.
The 2018/19 season concerts are:
1st December 2018 – String Gala in collaboration with Chiltern Music Academy
9th February 2019 – Our Annual Choral Concert
18th May 2019 – An evening of well-loved chamber music