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Symphony For The Spire - Salisbury Cathedral, England
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) Symphony No. 3 (Finale)
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908) The Flight of the Bumble Bee ±
David POPPER (1843-1913) Hungarian Rhapsody ±
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901) Luisa Miller (1849) (‘Quando le sere al placido’); Aida (1870) Finale from Act II.
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924) Tosca ((1898-9) (‘E lucevan le stelle’) *
Patrick DOYLE (b. 1953) Henry V – concert suite for actor and orchestra
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949) Morgen + (1894); September (Four Last Songs) + (1948) Caecile + (1894)
George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759) La Réjouissance (Music for the Royal Fireworks) (1749) arr. Jonathan Dove
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) Jersusalem (1916) orch. Elgar
± Ofra Harnoy (Cello); * Placido Domingo (tenor); + Jessye Norman (soprano); Kenneth Branagh and Charlton Heston in excerpts from Shakespeare’s Henry V and Charlton Heston reading The Moses Story (Deuteronomy) and American Names
The Philharmonia Chorus
English Chamber Orchestra/Richard Armstrong
rec. Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire, England, Salisbury Festival, May 1991
WARNER MUSIC/NVC ARTS DVD VIDEO 50-51011-2773-2-0 [83:00]

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The scene is a May evening, after dark, on the West Green of The Close at Salisbury Cathedral. The West front of the Cathedral is illuminated in the background. Before it is a shell-like concert platform open to the audience. The English Chamber Orchestra is obviously greatly augmented to cope with the demands of the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony and the Grand March from Aida. Alas neither shine, both seem somewhat tepid in their delivery; perhaps the sound is a little swallowed up in an outside environment or perhaps the ECO’s regular repertoire is more restrained?

The concert opens with the Finale of the Saint-Saëns symphony with its strident declarations for two pianos, its blaring brass fanfares and the deep organ pedal chords. The very inadequate booklet notes do not explain the presence of the organ; one must assume that it is the Cathedral organ mixed into the sound texture through some technical off-stage wizardry(?). But the most bizarre element of this excerpt is the contrived and restless, vari-coloured lighting making the concert shell resemble the mother ship from Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The cellist Ofra Harnoy looking gorgeous in an emerald green silk evening gown, shows off her impressive virtuosity in the Rimsky Korsakov presto show-piece, The Flight of the Bumble-Bee before sparkling in the little known but greatly appealing, melodic, gypsy-rhythmed Hungarian Rhapsody by David Popper.

Charlton Heston makes his first appearance reciting an American poem, American Places, a rather odd and somewhat tactless choice, for it not only involves reeling off a lot of odd-sounding American place names but it also suggests that the poet prefers them to English and French places. Much more impressive is the actor’s solemn and resounding declamation of the Deuteronomy verses covering Moses leading his people through the wilderness over forty years until, ultimately, he is commanded by the Lord to relinquish his command so that Joshua might lead the Israelites over the Jordan into the Promised Land.

Heston has a bit part as Westmoreland to Kenneth Branagh’s magnificently animated speeches, stirringly declaimed as Branagh strides across the stage. The Cathedral’s façade has giant spot-lit pictures of medieval knights in battle. Composer Patrick Doyle’s music for Henry V is muted Walton and Vaughan Williams to this reviewer’s ears. Doyle, himself, impresses when he steps out in front of the orchestra to lead the choir in his setting of Non Nobis Domine which concludes his film music suite.

The choir and orchestra, feature in a rather tame rendering of the Grand March from Verdi’s Aida – they are rather upstaged by the Kneller Hall trumpeters.

Placido Domingo in strong voice is impassioned in both the well-known Verdi and Puccini arias and almost eclipses the late Mario Lanza’s famous rendition on his last high note of ‘Be My Love’. Jessye Norman’s glorious tones – with lovely silken pianissimo control – shine in the lovely Richard Strauss orchestral songs.

The concert concludes, appropriately, with colourful firework starbursts above the Cathedral to Handel’s music. This is followed by the choir singing the Parry anthem to bring this popular classical music event to an end in true Last-Night-of-the-Proms style.

I must stress the inadequacy of the NVC notes There is no separate booklet; the concert’s programme is desultorily printed with no timings and very little information on the inside of the wrap-around case sleeve. There are just the minimum of notes on the back of the DVD case. There is no mention of Salisbury Cathedral’s spire or its history. Music DVDs are expensive enough and this sort of mealy-mouthed presentation is just not good enough.

For the record, the Cathedral City of Salisbury is 90 miles south-west of London. Building of the present Cathedral - replacing an earlier structure on higher ground slightly north of the City - began in 1220 and was completed with the construction of the magnificent Tower and Spire in 1330. Salisbury Cathedral is considered to be Britain’s finest 13th century cathedral, with Britain’s tallest spire: 123m/404 ft high.

Conservation has always been key; and from 1945 to 1951 the top 30 feet of the spire was rebuilt. But in 1985 it was necessary to launch a Spire Appeal to raise £6,500,000 for repairs and conservation of the Spire, Tower and West Front. In 1991, the year of this concert, began the twenty year, £20 million major repair programme partly funded by English Heritage. In 2000 the repair and conservation of the Spire, Tower and West Front were completed. Elsewhere the Cathedral’s conservation and repair programme continues … This review was written in Salisbury, Wilshire, England.

This ‘Pop’ classics collection has its moments – all the soloists shine – but the grander choral and orchestral items seem oddly flat.

Ian Lace



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