BBCSO/Sir Charles Mackerras.
Redcliffe Recordings RR016 (44' 11'')
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In his massive Sinfonia Intrepida, Graham Whettam has taken up the
challenge of writing an orchestral piece of genuinely symphonic stature in
the late 20th Century. Inspired by the indomitable spirit of those
who survived the devastation of the Second World War, this towering work
has much to say on the unquenchable flame of the human spirit. It might just
as easily have been called the 'Eroica' or 'Inextinguishable' had those epithets
not been used on previous symphonic Everests.
From the eerily beautiful beginning and hushed coda of the Lento slow movement
to the cataclysmic climaxes of the outer movements, this symphony speaks
of great things and has the powerful vocabulary to do so. Fleeting reminiscences
of other Leviathans (the writhing contrabassoon of the opening movement of
Mahler's Ninth and bleak woodwind solos and blazing C major coda of
Shostakovich's 'Leningrad' Symphony) soon fade as the listener is gripped
by Graham Whettam's authoritative and individual voice, universal and yet
intensely human. If one has to find equivalents among British symphonists,
then the cosmic scale and gigantic themes of Robert Simpson would be nearest,
with some of Malcolm Arnold's later symphonic utterances suggested by the
vehemence of the writing and maximum effect effortlessly derived from the
simplest of means.
The performance, taken from a 1980 BBC broadcast, though occasionally technically
fallible, is all that one could wish for in matters of interpretation: dramatic
and full-blooded with totally committed playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra
under Charles Mackerras. The recording is clean and clear, serving admirably
the astonishingly wide-ranging dynamic and sonic palette this work demands.
Francis Routh has put us all in his debt in releasing this outstanding British
symphony on disc. He could not have chosen a more impressive work with which
to launch the first orchestral CD from Redcliffe Recordings. It is good news
indeed that further orchestral works by Graham Whettam will be forthcoming
on this label later this year (the Sinfonia Contra Timore and the Cello
Concerto). I hope we will see more releases of British symphonic music of
this calibre in the future.
A further review by Marc Bridle
English symphonies are not often distinctively brilliant, or even interesting
works but Graham Whettam's Sinfonia Intrepida strikes me as being
as fine an example of the genre as Vaughan Williams' Fourth and Robert Simpson's
Ninth (with both of which it has much in common). This astonishing performance
left me full of admiration for a composer who is evidently a master of
orchestration. Both the outer movements contain climaxes of awesome power,
yet never does one hear congestion in the textures and the separate lines
of instrumentation that disfigure much more well known works of similar scope
and drive - Shostakovich's Leningrad being a perfect example.
Shostakovich is, indeed, a clear influence on this work - particularly in
the final movement with Whettam's use of snare drums and percussion, something
which is reflective not only of Shostakovich's Seventh but also of his Eighth
symphony. Although Intrepida is principally a tonal work, the most
atonal elements are found in the slow middle movement. Recalling the opening
chord of Tristan, itself the sun-rise of atonalism, the movement relies
on a symmetry that gives its middle section climactic strength beside string
writing that is as sparse and blood-chilling as the war-torn landscape it
seeks to depict. Although not quite as graphically intense, or as beautiful,
as Richard Strauss' picture of a war-levelled Dresden in
Metamorphosen, it does strike similar parallels.
The third, and final movement, is in many ways the most glorious of the work.
Beginning with horns and fractured percussive and string elements it reaches
its first point of brilliance at 4'15 - a Shostakovich-like scherzo of unusual
power and discipline. The power of this section is undeniable, with Mackerras
pulling from the BBC SO playing of astonishing intensity (just listen to
the strings before 8'00). The final bars of the symphony, moving from
pp strings to fff, and a tremendous chorale, are sustained
with impressive girth by Mackerras. The end is almost Brucknerian in its
Whilst there are moments of insecurity in the BBC SO's playing (notably in
the middle movement), this symphony is by and large magnificently played.
Although recorded in the BBC studios at Maida Vale, there is little sense
of claustrophobia, although I would love to hear this work recorded in a
larger acoustic. As with Havergal Brian's large-scale works, Sinfonia
Interpida needs space to unravel its beauties.
This is a major release that deserves the widest exposure. I have not been
so enthralled by an 'unknown' work since I discovered Artur Lemba's
Symphony years ago.
A further review by Simon Jenner
Why Whettam? British composers born in the 1920s had the roughest deal from
the Glock era and its fall out, of any this century. Establishing themselves
after the war, they had a brief efflorescence as Cheltenham, or
late/post-Cheltenham Symphonists. However this soon turned into a term of
abuse. Whettam had the worst of it and left the country. In contrast to the
19th century, Britain in the 20th rarely forgave artists who gained fame
abroad first. Brian Ferneyhough furnishes a grudging example. Gradually,
most of the generation including Peter Racine Fricker (1920), Robert Simpson
and Malcolm Arnold (1921), Anthony Milner (1924), John Joubert, Thomas Wilson
and Whettam himself (1927), Thea Musgrave (1928), Alan Hoddinott and Kenneth
Leighton (1929) have gained recognition; though Milner, in particular, is
still shrouded. Yet, despite the plaudits, Whettam has waited.
It's not all Glock's fault even though he took lifelong revenge for having
had to play the piano part in Bax's violin sonatas as a student in 1927.
The Late Sir William, as Constant Lambert used to refer to Walton around
the time of the First Symphony, had implacable as well as impeccable taste.
British composers born in the 1930s and after might well have found themselves
in a bleaker climate and left in some cases for Darmstadt had not Glock radically
shifted some miasmas of gentility. Much of the resulting high seriousness
has been defeated by the defeat of minimalism; and attendant post-modernists
with something they never felt modern about. But it was hard for the Cheltenham
Symphonists and their successors to be seen as upholding the Gentility Principle
that Al Alvarez was attacking in '50s poetry at the time.
I've said Glock had implacable taste. But Whettam's isn't English, and there
lies the lost chord. Simpson had a taste for the inexorable; his symphonies
are monumental, inevitable and to a degree impersonal. Because of that
sublimation and the tensions and beliefs around it (a lifelong pacifist for
example) he's become a classic. Whettam is not monumental but a composer
of ruined monuments. It was a time, as Paul Dehn wrote (as a 1940s poet,
before script-writing Planet of the Apes), 'when monuments went mad'.
This is the point of Sinfonia Intrepida. It's a Programme Symphony,
when it still wasn't allowed. Other Symphonists could somehow get away with
analytical notes. But Europe? It's all right now for Schnittke, Kancheli
et al to perpetrate this kind of thing. The same goes for all that
Russian Orthodox gloom released in the 1980s like a Russian spring. That's
why they're more naturally musical, but a British composer? No, somehow vulgar;
and unnatural vulgarity too. The Russians and the French do it so much better.
Intrepida is an extremely powerful symphony, and the recording here,
played by the BBC Symphony under the work's first conductor, Sir Charles
Mackerras, reproduces a stunning performance, in good analogue sound. It
commemorates the destruction of European cities, Warsaw, Rotterdam, Dresden.
It's in three movements, essentially destruction, desolation, and rebuilding,
the Phoenix of Europe as Whettam refers to the post-war reconstruction. Whettam's
own experiences, filtered through visits to the shattered capitals, are
The work centres round C, but this is hardly foregrounded in the violent
eruptions, the driving tritone that then couples with the long theme quoting
Tristan in a g# minor chord, and continues throughout the first movement,
resulting in a climax at 7.00 of Stravinskian proportions. The repeated
ostinato-like crotchet chord at one-bar intervals sounds straight out of
Part II of the Rite with a touch of Varèse. It's a tribute
to Whettam that such bold gestures don't register as such for a few seconds,
so naturally does he evolve the musical language to accommodate such writing.
This Maestoso intrepido gives way after 13.00 to Lento molto,
and the ghost, as in all British symphonies c. 1935-60 perhaps, of Sibelius
4, picking out solos and forlorn woodwind and string patches of despair.
Evoking Sibelius tells you what a critically bleak landscape it must have
been for Whettam too in 1977, when Maxwell Davies's First Symphony was regarded
as an aberration he'd not repeat. The final Maestoso eroico - con fuoco
tremendo reasserts the energy of the first movement. The stillness
brooding out of the solo melodic line in the second movement, breathes brickdust
and ash. The whole effect is of some vast processional, not entirely removed
from Birtwistle's The Triumph of Time of five years earlier, and which
it in some respects recalls in a different language. There is also some kinship
with Vaughan Williams' Sixth. The intervals gradually shift, a short static
fourth, then short, scurrying phrases flicker to the same kind of
scherzo-within-a-slow-movement introduced by Berwald. Whettam re-introduces
the Tristan chord and the movement subsides to the initial tempo now
broken into by the winds.
Francis Routh, in his authoritative analysis, points to the finale as the
centre of gravity of the work, the longest movement at 17'. Antiphonally
linked material recalls earlier music, the fourth in a reversed dactylic
rhythm and an arching theme for six horns, and back to Tristan. The
choral theme follows. In fact the symphony is being unravelled, rolled backwards
in some senses. Although some buildings are reversed out of the rubble, and
much of the fabric returns, the abstract of the symphony tends to no such
neatness. The climactic dénouement as Routh calls it, of the
work encodes the horn theme in a wind fabric that's ripped by interjections
from first movement material. The whole possibility of repeat destruction
is never wholly absent. After a sostenuto section again quoting
Tristan, on low wind, quite softly, the Con molta affermazione
al fine closes all in the final re-stated chorale theme. Timpani underpin
in a miming of a funeral snare-drum approach, which becomes affirmatory.
It is an extraordinary hard-won victory. A gnarled masterwork. Paul Conway
contributed excellent notes before the analysis by Francis Routh, and a list
of subscribers to this BBC Maida Vale recording is provided. Space perhaps
didn't allow any other mention of Whettam, though this would surely have
been welcome. The analysis was long and masterly, and the preceding notes
focused on the work in question. Another Whettam release is promised, and
one can only hope that far more of Whettam will be released in his lifetime.
It seems that Redcliffe are his sole champions, and this diversification,
in leasing recordings outside their recording potential, is an inspired step
forward. Recommended with all possible enthusiasm, as they say.
Can I add my grateful thanks to those who cotributed to the subscription
scheme for this recording-LM
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