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Sinfonia Intrepida

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.

Paul Conway

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 nobility.

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.

Marc Bridle

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 unambiguous.

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.

Simon Jenner

Can I add my grateful thanks to those who cotributed to the subscription scheme for this recording-LM

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