CONSTANT LAMBERT - SUMMER'S LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT.
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Sakari Oramo. Symphony Hall, Birmingham 23/09/99
Sakari Oramo has proved his commitment to British music by conducting performances of RVW's Sixth Symphony and Frank Bridge's The Sea in last year's CBSO season, the latter repeated at this year's Proms. The all-British programme on 23rd September, the first in the CBSO's autumn season, began with "Ed's Farewell Fanfare", a spiky, bluesy three-minute curtain raiser by former composer-in-residence Mark Anthony Turnage, followed by a vigorous reading of the ubiquitous Wasps Overture by Vaughan Williams. Next came an affecting performance of Walton's seductive Viola Concerto. Soloist Philip Dukes was a last-minute replacement for an indisposed Nobuko Imai, but no one would have guessed this from the sparks generated by the partnership of Dukes and the CBSO.
The second half was given over to a rare performance of Constant Lambert's "Summer's Last Will and Testament", a 55 minute cantata of stylistic diversity, emotional weight and orchestral and choral brilliance. Finished in the winter of 1935, this setting of writings by the 16th Century polemicist, poet and dramatist Thomas Nashe has strong claims to being one of its composer's finest works. Malcolm Arnold called it "one of the undiscovered treasures of the English choral repertoire" and on the evidence of this powerful performance he is not overstating the case. The cantata is unashamedly eclectic: mock-Elizabethan sections in the manner of Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite, Holstian mysticism in the extraordinary King Rat Rondo Burlesca, episodes utilising jazz-inspired rhythms - all these ingredients emerge from the melting pot of Lambert's imagination as something deeply original. The work sounds as though it might have been written much later than the mid-30s: something of the alchemy of Tippett is present in its audacious welding together of so many disparate elements into a convincing whole. The ending of the piece, with first violins reaching celestial heights before disappearing altogether, was particularly spellbinding.
The CBSO played with great character and brilliance, relishing the chance to display their virtuosity. The CBSO Choir was also on great form and no one would have guessed from their (occasionally rather Delian) contributions that this piece wasn't in their repertoire. Baritone soloist Jeremy Huw Williams made a suitably grave impression in the final dirge-like Saraband. However, the man of the evening must be Sakari Oramo, whose decision to programme the Lambert was courageous. Symphony Hall was well filled - on the evidence of this concert, such rare repertoire can attract healthy audiences.
CONSTANT LAMBERT Summer's Last Will & Testament; The Rio Grande; Aubade Heroique. Sally Burgess (mezzo) William Shimell (baritone) Jack Gibbons (piano) Opera North Chorus, English Northern Philharmonia/David Lloyd-Jones. HYPERION CDA 66565 [75.00]
CONSTANT LAMBERT Summer's Last Will & Testament; The Rio Grande; Aubade Heroique.
Sally Burgess (mezzo) William Shimell (baritone) Jack Gibbons (piano) Opera North Chorus, English Northern Philharmonia/David Lloyd-Jones.
HYPERION CDA 66565 [75.00]
Hyperion have produced the premiere recording of Constant Lambert's Summer's Last Will and Testament. Its appearance in the first ever commercial recording in any medium is an important event. For years the piece has been known, if at all, either by access to the score or by hearing off-air tapes of the 1965 Sargent broadcast. More recently there was a very fine account by Norman Del Mar with the BBC Concert Orchestra, Brighton Festival Chorus and the baritone David Wilson-Johnson (10 May 1986). The new CD also offers sparkling performances of his most famous piece together with a highly atmospheric short orchestral piece.
Lambert's conducting and other activities held him back from producing the number of works generated by Bax, Vaughan Williams and many of the other famous names who enjoyed the benefits of private means. His catalogue includes only twenty or so mature works. Looking back on this numerically small crop in 1949, Lambert observed to Frederick Ashton: "I like Summer's Last Will and Testament the best of all my work".
The piece was written between Summer 1932 and Winter 1935. It is too easily forgotten that Lambert completed this major work when he was only thirty. There was no commission and he knew that the work would have to labour hard for performances. Probably the prospect of a recording did not even occur to him.. The piece received its first performance conducted by the composer at the Queen's Hall on 29 January 1936. The baritone soloist was Roy Henderson with the Philharmonic Choir and the BBCSO. As inimical fate would have it King George V had died only nine days before the concert. The melancholy and keenly felt sense of loss, passing time and wheeling seasons which pervade the Lambert piece were out of keeping with the national mood of formal and ceremonial mourning. The concert was sparsely attended and the critics were not encouraging.
Of those who did attend many would have been more familiar with the ebullience of Rio Grande rather than the darker moods and introspection of the 1930 Piano Concerto. Yet it was the introverted and darker Lambert persona which was revealed across a large time span (53 minutes) with major forces. The work is occasionally lit by flashes of the dynamic Lambert but the overall sound-signature is one of sadness, the charnel house and fear of the plague which prompted Thomas Nashe to write the words which are given to the baritone in the final movement: "Adieu, Farewell Earth's bliss."
British music seems always to have drawn strength from this sense of passing time and loss. Examples are plentiful including, in their very different ways, Bliss's Morning Heroes, Howells' Hymnus Paradisi, Finzi's Intimations of Immortality and Bantock's Omar Khayyam.
Lambert explores his subject as if it were an essay. He poses questions, answers them, explains and carries one along with the flow of the argument. An emotional charge is built up for a release which comes gradually, crackling and flashing with a dazzling emotional intensity. I hope the parallel is not too unusual but there is something of the intensity of Allan Pettersson in this music. Try the Seventh Symphony if you would like an illustration.
Lambert has a great gift for high yearning tunes which continue to unwind when you expect them to run out of stamina. His orchestral essay, Music for Orchestra is dominated by such a melody and one of a similar cast opens Summer's Last Will and it is the shade of this melody which passes momentarily across the landscape as the work concludes.
Also on the record are The Rio Grande a work with which most members will be familiar and which here receives a fine performance, by turns catching all the glitter and yearning concentrated in, this, the most famous of Lambert's works. There is also the Aubade Héroïque, a short orchestral 'morning song' written with recollections of the Sadler's Wells ballet troupe's narrow escape from Holland as Nazi paratroopers spear-headed the invasion of that country. The company lost much of its set material and costumes. The piece is dedicated to Vaughan Williams and like the Merchant Seamen Suite carries more than a few echoes of that composer.
The Hyperion's Ted Perry feels that it is a pretty stunning record all round and the engineer Tony Faulkner considers it one of his best ever recordings. Certainly the recording is very natural with none of the tiring neon glow on the high strings which we have come to expect from some other companies. The sound has plenty of impact when necessary. The insert essay by the late Christopher Palmer is very fine indeed as we came to expect from this writer. The piece is well researched, detailed and offers insights and observations that repay more than a single reading.
There is enough Lambert material for another generously filled and rewarding CD. Perhaps Hyperion will now look at the other peaks in the Lambert worklist. Begging for CD treatment now that Tiresias has been recorded is The Bird Actors Overture (1952, 4'), Music for Orchestra (1927, dedicated to Berners, c 12'), Elegiac Blues (1927, 2'), Dirge from Cymbeline (1940, dedicated to Patrick Hadley, 7') and Merchant Seamen Suite (17' in the five movement version). To this could be added Patrick Hadley's tone poem Kinder Scout.
While we wait for more, now is the time to relish the major work on this disc, a true classic of the period. For all its years in the wilderness it stands fresh and piercingly poignant as the day it was written.
Bereavement and loss figure eventually in all our lives. Lambert speaks eloquently and poetically of these experiences and in doing so leaves us with a work which we can all take to our hearts. Hyperion are to be thanked. For those who have not yet purchased the disc, have no fears. This is eminently accessible and rewarding listening. The thrill of discovery awaits you.
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