Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Oration, Concerto elegiaco (1930) [32:02]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Cello Concerto in E minor op.85 (1919) [26:34]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) Invocation (1911) [10.32]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Richard Dickins
rec. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 29-30 March 2005.
NIMBUS NI 5763 [69.11]
MusicWeb International’s Frank Bridge site
“Bridge’s Masterpiece [Oration is]….one of the pinnacles not only of Bridge’s art but of 20th Century British music. Indeed, it can be placed with the finest orchestral works of the first half of the century.” So writes Anthony Payne in his brief but cogent survey Frank Bridge – Radical and Conservative (Thames Publishing), When a composer and musicologist of his stature says something like that you had better sit up and take notice. This is yet another disc which shows the careful planning of repertoire allied to superb production values that characterises so much of the Nimbus catalogue. What unique but profoundly intelligent couplings this disc provides. The two main works are the two greatest concertante cello works by British composers of the last century (that should start a debate!) which in turn are their composer’s response in some degree to the Great War. The Holst ‘make-weight’ is much more than just that and shares the same lyrical impassioned sound-world as the other pieces. Add to that performances of towering stature by one of the stalwarts of British music – Raphael Wallfisch (I was surprised to read that this is his first recording of the Elgar) – and you have an absolute winner of a disc.
Originally released in 2006 this disc rather crept in under my musical radar. Quite why or how that happened I do not know as both of the main works are amongst my very favourite. I assume it must have been because of a mis-placed sense of economy, wishing to avoid repertoire duplication in my collection. Frankly, I don’t think you can ever have enough performances of either main work and indeed these would now go to right at the top of the pile for me in both works. Not as such because I think they are ‘the last word’ but because they are so well conceived and executed in their own right. Oration is an extraordinary work. Completed in 1930, it was not premiered until 1936 (by Florence Hooton), received one more performance in Bridge’s lifetime and then was forgotten until the fine and justly renowned performance by Julian Lloyd-Webber on Lyrita some forty years later. That performance has now been restored to the CD catalogue (coupled rather neatly with Wallfisch’s father – Peter – playing the other great concertante work by Bridge Phantasm) where it joins versions by Alexander Baillie (Pearl), Steven Isserlis (EMI) and Alban Gerhardt. Any of those performances will give you great pleasure and satisfaction but I would argue a strong case for adding this performance to your collection at the very least. The structure of this work is quite unique – to quote Payne again (well he puts it more succinctly and better than I could hope to!) “it is the last and grandest example of Bridge’s phantasy arch-form”. By this he means a model that Bridge, and many other British composers, adopted in the early years of the century in an attempt to win the famous Cobbett Chamber Music Prize. The key rule for this competition was that the piece had to be in one continuous movement with the various sections thematically linked. This was a deliberate echoing of the Elizabethan phantasy (hence the spelling) and provided many composers with a way of escaping the stultifying ‘limitations’ of standard sonata form. By 1930 Bridge had evolved this structure into seven linked sections (plus an epilogue) where the music organically grows out of the material that precedes it. The score has been published by Faber and if you have a chance do look at it. Part of the reason for the music’s neglect I’m sure is how ‘modern’ it looks on the page. The orchestration is very standard indeed – nothing there a late 19th century composer would not have used – but the use of it is sparse and austere. Little woodwind figurations stutter and fragment, the cello line obsesses and rarely opens out into long grateful melodies and the number of pages of ‘full score’ are relatively few. But the impact on the ear is astonishing. This is not a score that reveals its secrets at first hearing. Wallfisch has the full technical command and, more importantly, the range of tonal colour to give the music the full impact it richly deserves. I love the way Wallfisch is able to play with keening simplicity or guttural aggression as the music demands. Occasionally – but surely rightly – he might not make the most beautiful of sounds but much more importantly his approach is totally committed. More importantly for me - and this applies to the entire CD - he does follow the composer’s instructions far more than many soloists. Occasionally he does makes tenuto lines into more aggressive accents although this has a feeling of apt spontaneity. To borrow Wilfred Owen’s famous quote; “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity”. Bridge’s oration is a funereal one and its subject is the wastefulness of war. For that reason I cannot imagine it an accident that key to the arch structure of the piece are three hollow military marches. Never have marches sounded so lacking in pomp. Interestingly, the final epilogue appears to have been an afterthought. He wrote a double barline and dated it 9th May 1930 at rehearsal figure 38 where the shape of the arch is complete and the cello is left with a lone high E after a final spectral march figure in the low strings. Satisfying though this would be as an ending it would be a dark night of despair. The 55 bars of sparse Epilogue feel like a dawn albeit a cold and grey one although the final tentative D major chord seems to hope for better things to come. This section is magically performed here by all concerned and it is an apt moment in this review for me to mention some other heroes of this recording. The playing of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is absolutely superb and it has been captured in the finest recorded sound I have heard from the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool. As someone who grew up in Liverpool I know the sound of that hall extremely well and it has always been something of a mystery why in recording terms it is often deemed a ‘problem’ hall for engineers. In concert, the back row of the upper circle still provides superb clarity and balance yet this seems to have eluded even the best engineers. Perhaps Nimbus’s unheralded engineers and producers using their preferred minimalist microphone array (one assumes) have been able to capture the ambience more naturally than other multi-miked approaches (I have confirmed that the engineer was Adrain Farmer of Nimbus - LM). Conversely, the fact that the Philharmonic Hall is not as resonant as many preferred recording venues now means that the natural balance has not been compromised by loss of detail caused by hall ambience as happens on some of Nimbus’ other orchestral discs. It’s a marriage made in heaven and I wish that Nimbus would return there more often – I can’t think of any other recordings they have made there. In particular the gentler dynamics are able to float and blend naturally and solo lines are projected with a lifelike easy lyricism. In contrast the powerful tuttis have all the impact one could wish for without any synthetic overblown amplification.
Time and again my listening notes pick out really stunningly beautiful orchestral detail. It is a perfect example of players attentively following the composer’s instructions yet at the same time adding their own individual high musicianship. The woodwind principals in particular cover themselves in glory throughout. Likewise the brass have brazen glory when required (more of that in the Elgar review!) and mellow sonority to boot. The strings too have stunning ensemble and as beautifully ethereal a sound as I can remember hearing. All of this allows the sound world that Bridge has assembled so meticulously to register as a unified whole. Great credit for much of this must also fall to conductor Richard Dickins who conducts the whole disc with superb sensitivity and nuance whilst allowing the music to flow idiomatically.
Clearly the Elgar Concerto is much more familiar and this recording is competing with several ‘classic’ versions. It has nothing to fear from any of them and much to offer. For what it is worth (and I am not a huge fan of this except in extreme cases) it makes use of a new urtext edition. As the editor Jonathan Del Mar points out, in the case of this score it does not make for a huge textual difference. In fact only a single note in the cello part is changed – in the slow movement cadenza (page 23 in my Novello’s miniature score – the 4th bar of rehearsal figure 19) the bottom notes of the spread chords should progress chromatically down B-B flat-A-Aflat. The B flat is missing so the score shows are repeated B natural. Del Mar himself admits that you have to be pretty clued up to notice the difference although interestingly Elgar corrects the note on both of his own recordings. What is clearer is how Elgar was willing elsewhere to change the detail of the score to accommodate the imperative of a particular performance. This recording tries to retain some of those performing variations without becoming a slave to the altar of authenticity. Again Wallfisch is very sensitively attuned to the numerous directions Elgar issues particularly the number of accents and quite heavy emphasises he places on many notes. To those schooled in the romantic lyrical school of du Pré this does give the work a more muscular less long-golden-sunset feel. I would not want to be without the hyper-romantic du Pré but I have to say Wallfisch’s approach grows on me more with every listening. There are places – particularly the 3rd movement where he can sing with exquisite tenderness so the presence of accentuation elsewhere is clearly a choice not a failing. Again he is hugely helped by the alert sensitivity of the RLPO. Probably because I know the score better than the Bridge from the inside time and again I delighted in the sheer refinement of the orchestral playing. Try the opening 6 bars; a beautifully resonant low strings forte/piano, followed by a proper full length dotted crochet (1/4 note) which has a little ‘hat’ accent on it, 2 piano dotted (short) crochets, a pianissimo dotted (shortened) quaver. The woodwind enter in bar 4 – 2 clarinets and 2 bassoons with a pair of tenuto minims (1/2 notes) with a crescendo from piano to forte then a comma and then (this is tricky to bring off well) a sudden dynamic drop to pianissimo after a marked comma. And we’ve only reached bar 6 and haven’t mentioned the soloist! To make a) that amount of detail register and b) make it sound logical and fluent is incredibly hard. Add a no-doubt tight recording schedule and you can see why so often most of this detail goes for little. Not here, All of that is clearly articulated and thoroughly musically convincing. In fact throughout this performance the orchestral playing is absolutely magnificent. Elgar was a master orchestrator – all the more so considering that he was essentially self-taught. Little details and voicings registered here for me that I have never fully appreciated before. Try the little trombone glissandi in the Finale at rehearsal figure 60 – Calum MacDonald in his extended and excellent liner notes points up the bucolic Falstaffian good humour of this section. Indeed it is the range of emotions that Dickins and Wallfisch capture so well. To categorise this work just as the sun setting on the Empire is to ignore so many other elements of it. For sure the final return to the painful nostalgia of the slow movement (a trick Elgar used to similar powerful effect in the contemporaneous Violin Sonata) does provide an emotionally cathartic and powerful resolution to the work but that registers all the more if preceding passages are allowed to be unbuttoned and confident. The Dickins/Wallfisch conception plays the theatricality of this to perfection. I have only one little niggling doubt where the performance has yet to totally convince me and that is in the main body of the second movement Allegro Molto. The cello part is almost Mendelssohnian in its flying semiquavers and Elgar does mark it pianissimo leggierissimo – very quietly and very lightly. Wallfisch chooses not to emphasise the skittish fantasy here and his heavier approach does seem at odds with the rest of the orchestration. This is the only movement that suffers from less than perfect ensemble with a couple of Wallfisch’s impulsive tempo pushes causing the orchestra to scurry after him. But that is so minor and is only noticeable in the context of the superb ensemble surrounding it the rest of the time. This is by no means a radical rethinking of a work but it is a fresh and unhindered revisit to a favourite work and a version that reaffirms its status as a masterpiece.
Given that both the companion works on this disc are masterpieces it seems a little harsh on Holst to include one of his juvenilia! But actually, in the arc of the disc as a whole it works extremely well. It is a work without pretension and after the emotional wringer of the Bridge and Elgar it provides some aural balm. Imogen Holst was a practitioner of ‘tough love’ as far as her father’s work was concerned. In her survey of his output she could be rather withering in her dismissal of just about anything he wrote that did not, in her opinion, achieve the highest heights. So this Invocation was summarised by her as “not of any value in itself”. Well she was wrong. Sure we have a transitional work where the dual fascinations of Indian culture and Wagnerian aesthetic/orchestration make for a curious alliance but it is a very beautiful work. Holst always understood orchestration so well and this is a gift for cellists the solo line lyrical and impassioned. There is recorded competition for this too. I have not heard the Tim Hugh version on Naxos (Tim Hugh (cello)/David Lloyd-Jones/Royal Scottish National Orchestra (with Somerset Rhapsody, Beni Mora, Fugal Overture, Egdon Heath and Hammersmith)
Naxos 8.553696) but I do know the premiere recording by Julian Lloyd Webber on RCA and the Alexander Baillie version on Lyrita. I do like the Baillie version a lot but I think the extra minute that Wallfisch and Dickins takes does allow the rhapsodical musings of this work to register with even greater effect. Again the superlative orchestral playing and recording help greatly with the sound-world moving from a chaste quasi-oriental minimalism at the start to a rhine-maiden-rainbow-bridged climax. A real bonus at the end of a hugely rewarding concert. As I wrote earlier I was genuinely surprised to realise that this was Wallfisch’s first recording of the Elgar – let alone the Bridge – but this disc proves to have been well worth the wait. More from this creative team in this venue please … Isn’t it about time we heard the John Foulds Cello Concerto … please!
And a brief contribution by Rob Barnett:-
I commend this CD. The star is the recording as much as the inspired playing and the repertoire. Clarity is the watchword. I cannot think of any other CDs of the Bridge or Elgar that register such a profusion of orchestral detail. If you are studying any of these works then this disc makes an easy first choice. Listening with a full score you will be least likely to stumble and lose your way.
The Bridge is a remarkable work scored with a rare blend of power and transparency. Written broadly within a decade of each other the misery and suffocating disillusion of the Great War serves as a shared backdrop. Protest runs through both works but the sense of family sorrows and of passing years overarches the Elgar. In the Bridge there is desolation close to despair as well as tragedy. Holst’s Invocation is from an earlier era but the Bridge work, for me parallels Holst’s 1927 Egdon Heath in its haggard fatalistic weariness. The three marches of the Bridge are used to emotionally excoriating effect. Bridge has no time for the jingle, panoply and bluster of war. Interestingly the Elgar was completed within a year of Armistice Day whereas for the openly pacifist Bridge Oration was to emerge a dozen years later. Its language, unlike that of the Elgar, made it an unpopular choice. Coincidence or cause, Bridge’s pre-War music had a warmer lyric vein than those that were written during and after the War. The reviving draughts of the Second Viennese School touched off in Bridge well-springs of eloquence that lent his music a new cogency and concision of expression. For others he was seen as betraying his pre-War persona and chasing the latest fads like a camp-follower. Now criticisms of this sort seem irrelevant in the face of such devastating music. Much the same can be said of Bridge’s Second Piano Trio, third and fourth string quartets, Enter Spring and Oration’s brother in music, Phantasm for piano and orchestra. Phantasm and Oration now share a Lyrita CD. Finally Oration was picked up by the BBC and broadcast by Florence Hooton in 1936 but let it not be forgotten that it was in fact revived by an early champion of the 1970s British music revival, the cellist Thomas Igloi (1947-1976). I hope that one day his performance can be tracked down in a quality recording and reissued on CD. It dates from circa 1972 where the studio team also included the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Frederick Prausnitz – a staunch advocate of Roger Sessions and others of the 1970s avant-garde. It was re-broadcast several times until the Lloyd-Webber appeared on a Lyrita LP now reissued. The ECO were much associated with Benjamin Britten, a Bridge pupil, whose Aldeburgh Festival was the scene of pioneering revivals of The Sea and Enter Spring conducted by Britten (on BBC Legends). There is even a Wallfisch family connection. Peter Wallfisch (1924-1993), Raphael’s father, was the solo pianist in the BBC studio recording of Phantasm where the orchestra was again in the ECO conducted by another Britten stalwart, Steuart Bedford. One wonders whether the young Raphael first encountered the Bridge through tapes of the 1970s broadcast by Igloi. Nicholas Barnard has mentioned other fine performances on CD and I would like to draw fresh attention to one of his examples: Alexander Baillie. Baillie’s Oration appeared in harness with Enter Spring on an early but sparsely timed Bridge CD (SHE CD9601), long deleted but worth tracking down. The Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra were conducted by John Carewe.
Beyond this let me just second Nick Barnard in commending this cinderella of a disc and also in recommending with every enthusiasm that Wallfisch records the John Foulds Cello Concerto. Its material is closely related to an early masterpiece of his, the Cello Sonata – recorded on the BMS label. Wallfisch in fact broadcast the Foulds concerto for the BBC in 1988 with the ECO conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite.