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British project 4861547
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The British Project
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Sospiri, Op 70 (1914) [4:50]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Sinfonia da Requiem, Op 20 (1940) [20:06]
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Troilus and Cressida (1947-54) – Symphonic Suite (arr. Christopher Palmer, 1988) [31:34]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1972-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [15:21]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
rec. November 2020 (Vaughan Williams), March 2021 (Elgar), Symphony Hall, Birmingham; October 2019, Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg (Britten & Walton)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 486 1547 [71:55]

This album was released by DG in digital-only format early in 2021, ever since when I’d been waiting impatiently for it to come out on CD. I was keen to hear it because I’d heard Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO play two of the works in concert. The Britten was given in a concert in Symphony Hall, Birmingham in 2019 as the opening work in the programme which launched what was to have been a two-season celebration of the orchestra’s centenary. Of course, those plans were subsequently compromised significantly by Covid restrictions, though the CBSO made valiant – and successful – efforts to mark their centenary in other ways. Part of those revised centenary events was a series of streamed concerts and the Vaughan Williams Fantasia was one piece in a concert which was streamed early in December 2020; it had been recorded on 18 November 2020 and I assume the same performance is now included on this DG disc.

The performance of Elgar’s Sospiri with which the present programme opens is one that I haven’t heard before. It’s a touching little piece, full of evident sincerity. It’s very well done here. The CBSO play it with finesse and Ms Gražinytė-Tyla invests the music with just the right degree of feeling; the music lingers, as it should, but the lingering is not overdone.

I deliberately did not re-read my Seen and Heard review of the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia performance lest it should influence my judgement of the audio recording. I recall, though, that the players were seated in a socially distanced way on the stage of a very dimly lit Symphony Hall. The distancing must have challenged the musicians but, on the other hand, it meant that the three different string ‘choirs’ are heard very distinctly on this recording. The music is moved on and not allowed to drag but the conductor achieves this without sacrificing poetry or atmosphere. It’s an admirable performance. In particular, it’s good to find that the CBSO had retained their collective quality despite all the difficulties brought about by the severe disruption to musical life in the UK in 2020.

Just before I sat down to listen seriously to this CD, I read on Twitter a review of the first performance of VW’s masterpiece. The premiere took place in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910 at the Three Choirs Festival; it was followed by a performance of The Dream of Gerontius. The critic of the Gloucester Journal newspaper opined that “the impression left on the mind by the whole composition was one of unsatisfaction (if we may use such a word). We had short phrases repeated with tiresome iteration, and at no time did the Fantasia rise beyond the level of an uninteresting exercise … there was a sense of relief when the Fantasia came to an end and we could get to something [Gerontius] with more colour and warmth.” So there! As is well known, the young Ivor Gurney ad Herbert Howells had a rather different reaction; rightly, they were intoxicated by what they heard. The 1910 critic’s judgement is a cautionary example for all of us who have to evaluate new music. I very much prefer the view of Richard Bratby in the DG booklet. He observes felicitously that “the Tallis Fantasia plays freely with spaces and echoes, as if the distance – past or future? – is singing the music back to us”. And he describes the music as “an iridescent tapestry of sound: a new conception of an ancient tradition, simultaneously timeless and modern, questioning and serene.”

DG here offer us a performance of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem given in October 2019 in the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg. Just a couple of weeks earlier, on 26 September, I’d heard a CBSO performance in their home at Symphony Hall. Once again, I deliberately refrained from looking back at my Seen and Heard review though I vividly recall being gripped by the performance I heard that evening in Birmingham.

I had forgotten how spaciously Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla takes the opening movement, ’Lacrymosa’. Her core speed is a bit broader than, say, that adopted by Richard Hickox in his 1991 recording with the LSO (review). Incidentally, his Chandos recording may be 30 years old but the sound is still stunning. Mind you, DG’s sound on this recording is also hugely impressive and the acoustic of the Elbphilharmonie is marvellously clear and present. Some listeners may feel that Ms Gražinytė-Tyla’s speed is a bit too measured but I think it works, not least in conveying numbness and sorrow in the opening minutes. She maintains and screws up the tension most effectively and the movement’s climax is shattering. Conductor, players and engineers work together to realise very successfully the different colours in Britten’s scoring.

The ‘Dies Irae’ second movement snarls and spits, the music invested with spiky energy. In this performance, the rhythms are razor-sharp, as they need to be, and the graphic detail of the orchestration comes across most successfully. This is a blistering performance. If the first movement was taken more spaciously than we sometimes hear, then the concluding ‘Requiem Aeternam’ may strike some as on the brisk side. By way of comparison, Richard Hickox’s performance plays for 7:29 whereas the present traversal lasts 5:32. Hickox is very impressive but I think that Ms Gražinytė-Tyla offers a different vision. At her more flowing speed, this is definitely music of consolation. This is a most impressive reading of Sinfonia da Requiem and it makes me regret all the more that her planned performances of War Requiem in the CBSO’s centenary year fell victim to the scourge of Covid restrictions. One day, perhaps.

The programme is completed by the four-movement suite which the late Christopher Palmer fashioned from Walton’s opera Troilus and Cressida in 1988. Palmer’s orchestral suite is a rare visitor to our concert halls – the opera is, of course, even more rarely heard – and this super performance makes one regret that very much. The first movement, ‘Prelude and Seascape “The Trojans”’ offers a blend of characteristic Waltonian bite and bittersweet warmth. Both aspects are expertly rendered here, the lyrical side especially. The second movement is a Scherzo, and quite a genial one at that. Here, the scherzo material is delivered with great precision. One might have expected Palmer to use Cressida’s great aria ‘At the haunted end of the day’ as the material for his slow movement but he has other ideas and uses it instead in the second movement as the foundation of a luscious trio. Here, the CBSO play this gorgeous music with great warmth. The slow movement itself, ‘The Lovers’, portrays the eponymous ill-fated lovers. The performance is suitably ardent and the quiet ending is given with great sensitivity. The finale mixes flashes of Waltonian brilliance and a good deal of poignancy. Ms Gražinytė-Tyla and her excellent orchestra do it full justice.

I don’t know how much Walton Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has previously conducted but here she displays a fine feel for his music. On this evidence I’d like to hear her do more of this composer’s music; not, perhaps, the great First Symphony - though I’m sure she’d do it well – but perhaps the neglected Second Symphony or the masterly Hindemith Variations. Probably, though, there won’t be time before her too-brief stay in Birmingham comes to an end. As it is, I’m delighted that she’s ventured into what will be unfamiliar territory for many collectors and given us such a splendid account of the Troilus and Cressida Suite.

This is a very fine disc. The music is superb and it all receives top-drawer performances from the CBSO. The title ‘The British Project’ hints at a planned series, though maybe any such thoughts have been abandoned now that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has called time on her position as Osborn Music Director of the CBSO: she leaves at the end of the 2021/22 season, though she will be principal guest conductor in the following season. That said, I think I’m right in saying that when she and the CBSO visited Hamburg in 2019 they performed other British music, including Tippett’s A Child of our Time. Were DG’s microphones live when that work was given? If so, might there be an extension of ‘The British Project’?

Whether working in Birmingham or Hamburg, the DG engineers have recorded the CBSO in really fine sound which allows both the impact and the nuances of their performances to shine through. This is a disc which all enthusiasts for British music should try to hear.

John Quinn

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