ELGAR: "Pomp and Circumstance" March Nos. 1 & 4.
MAXWELL DAVIES: An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. TURNAGE: Three Screaming
MACMILLAN: Britannia. BRITTEN: Sinfonia da Requiem.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles.
Telarc CD-80677 (F) (DDD) TT: 71:48
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Schizophrenic. This CD features music from three eras of British music
from the last hundred years: the ages of Elgar, Britten, and Peter Maxwell
Davies. Mark-Anthony Turnage and James MacMillan both show the influence
of Maxwell Davies.
Donald Runnicles does best with Maxwell Davies and beyond. He turns in
a streamlined Elgar P & C No. 4, which kind of works. However, it
fails miserably in the first march. It sounds as if he can't wait to
get finished. I grew up with Barbirolli. Barbirolli took his time without
ever dragging. It gave these works a gravitas and a complexity largely
missing from Runnicles, whose tempo reduces these works damn near to
triviality -- Elgar as the brainless musical Col. Blimp, an image his
hostile critics have loved to push. But Elgar was far more complicated.
His contemporaries, after all, regarded the Pomp and Circumstance marches
as troubled and full of the harshness of modern life.
The Sinfonia da Requiem, probably a twentieth-century classic, starts
out okay, in a kind of limbo. You wait for something to happen. And wait.
The first movement, "Lacrymosa," rumbles like the later War
Requiem's "Requiem aeternam" and "Libera me." But
Runnicles's account seems somehow downright sunny, to the point of turning
the Sinfonia into another piece. The score, written in 1939, was the
pacifist Britten's fulfillment of a commission from the Japanese government.
Britten intended it as a sermon against war. The Japanese considered
themselves insulted and refused to perform the work, although they paid
Britten's fee. For many years, the composer refused to conduct it, because
he considered it "too personal." When he finally took up the
piece, he delivered an account that roasts your insides. The first movement,
heavy on timpani and bass drum, crushes like the North Atlantic in a
storm -- pretty much the brooding atmosphere of Peter Grimes. In the
second, the "Dies irae," he slaps you around and guffaws, a
Breughelish vision of Hell. The third, "Requiem aeternam," brings
only an uneasy rest. You toss and turn throughout eternity. André Previn's
reading, on his debut recording as a classical conductor (my introduction
to the work), served up a different, though hardly less blistering, reading
for Columbia (not currently available). Britten's reaction to Previn: "Wow!" Runnicles's
point of view -- again, something more refined and lightweight -- fails
the work. It's like listening to Hamlet recited by Betty Boop.
Runnicles does much better with the post-Modern stuff. At the distance
of the more than thirty years, since I first encountered his music, it
strikes me that Peter Maxwell Davies stands as the most significant composer
of his generation. Certainly, he has the most musical progeny. I wish
I could trumpet my own prescience, but in 1972 I happened to find myself
in London at a performance of the opera Taverner and, a few days later,
at a concert featuring the Taverner Variations. I detested both. Since
then, with more experience of contemporary music under my belt, the composer
has either thrilled me or bored me, with nothing in between. Maxwell
Davies's Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise has always reminded me, in an odd
way, of Copland's El Salón Mexico -- both a very sophisticated
summing-up of contemporary techniques, disguised as Pops pieces. By the
way, both composers described their scores as "postcards." Maxwell
Davies composes to a program -- and vividly, I might add. The music conjures
up dramatic pictures: the guests arriving in the rain, various toasts
drunk, the evening degenerating into inebriated lurching about, the band
ensemble going to hell, a sentimental slightly tipsy toast to the happy
couple, and a bright sunrise as the guests finally go home. One neat
feature among many in the work is a passage for the Highland bagpipes.
The composer says that, while the bagpipes are not indigenous to the
Orkneys (Norwegians ruled the islands during the eighth and ninth centuries),
he might be forgiven, since the north of Scotland lies just over the
water. Runnicles and Atlanta get the humor and good nature of the piece
but at the same time manage to play vividly and with great refinement.
This performance won't replace the composer's own on Collins Classics,
but it has its own validity.
I always wonder how much listeners get out of Mark-Anthony Turnage's
Three Screaming Popes if they don't know the Francis Bacon paintings.
Turnage gives you an atmosphere rather than a translation from pigment
to music, but that atmosphere is puzzling and complicated. At least in
my case, knowing the pictures brings the work into emotional focus. Turnage's
music gets in your face. He has a raw -- some have gone so far to call
it "punk" -- sensibility. Runnicles isn't that kind of conductor.
He gives you a tough world, but not a nightmarish one. On the other hand,
the Atlantans play beautifully. In many ways, Turnage plays with the
orchestra, coming up with a steady stream of new and arresting sounds.
This is what Runnicles emphasizes. However, if you prefer a performances
that goes for emotional broke, go for Rattle on EMI.
James MacMillan's Britannia seems to me a counterpart to his
Scotch Bestiary (see my REVIEW on
www.classicalnet) though in this case a bit cooler. MacMillan, an ardent
Scot, can afford to take
a less jaundiced look at
after all, not his people. You might call this piece a fantasia on "patriotic
airs." Much of it consists of phrases from Elgar's Cockaigne, as
well as "God Save the Queen," reflected in fun-house mirrors,
but it lacks much the satiric savagery of the Bestiary. It seems to fall
under the mantle of a good-natured ribbing, as if MacMillan tries to
get the English to take themselves less seriously. Interspersed with
the patriotic gas one finds some beautiful quiet passages highly evocative
of folk song, as if this were the real England and the rest England in
heavy theatrical makeup. To me, Runnicles's reading succeeds best of
all the items on the program, although I haven't heard the composer's
own on Chandos.
In sum, Runnicles and the Atlanta always play beautifully, although sometimes
they miss the point of the works they play. The sound is Telarc's usual
S.G.S. (February 2008)