Music at a change of time
© Chris Green, September 2014
For those of us in countries which were involved in the Great War of 1914-18, there is a strong impetus to revisit the music written both before, during and after that cataclysmic event. So, for example, I have been giving lectures on European culture "on the brink" by which I mean those years up to 1914 which saw the birth of the silent film, the beginning of specially composed film scores, the emergence of post-Wagnerian Romanticism with composers such as Debussy, Delius and Korngold. The emergence on to the scene of Stravinsky and his ability to engage in scandals along with his colleagues in the Ballet-Russes ensured that The Rite of Spring would always be remembered. Then there were composers such as Schoenberg and his move from the Romanticism to twelve-tone music that was going to shake the world in the years after 1918.
Yes, all was changing and yet there were less revolutionary voices whose contribution was as significant including Claude Debussy. His L'apres midi d'faune did more than ripple a few musical trees. Leaving aside the erotic choreography, the harmonies in the piece were daring and pointed the way to a young France that was moving way from the shadow of Camille Saint-Saens. Both composers lived through the 1914-1918 period, with the younger Debussy dying at the end of the Great War, and Saint- Saens surviving him by another three years.
Both composes are featured in a stylish CD of French Chamber Music with one CD devoted to works by Debussy, and the second to the music of Saint-Saens and what a difference. The older man is clearly under the influence of the Brahms approach. Harmonically and stylistically it belongs to a late nineteenth century tradition, whereas Debussy's music is more fluid and daring. For example, he introduces the saxophone in the Rapsodie (1911). The work was commissioned by the French-born wife of an American surgeon, She found it too taxing to play and Debussy rescored it for cor anglais. In this Cala release, we are presented with both versions along with some delightful works for clarinet, oboe, and the extended Sonata for flute, viola and harp. How the French love the harp!
Wind instruments play a significant role in the eight works by Saint -Saens, and although I have portrayed him as belonging to an older generation of composer, we have to remember that his name is emblazoned in the Hall of Fame for composing probably the first film score in 1908. Most of the works played by the group of British musicians were published before the end of the nineteenth century, and by the outbreak of the Great War, Saint-Saens was expressing himself strongly in favour of a ban on all German music. In turn, he was mocked by the younger generation as the composer of trifles. Not so, for listening to this release and one finds much to enjoy and explore further (if only I was a woodwind player) (Cala CACD 1017).
Frank Bridge was born in 1879 and therefore younger by a few years than Debussy and he died in 1941. His music deserves a better airing because often he is regarded as the teacher of Benjamin Britten forgetting that he had a distinctive voice, and although not as adventurous as contemporaries such as Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, he could compose works that would challenge such as the two works on the Lyrita release in which Julian Lloyd Webber is accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Braithwaite. Now that Lloyd Webber ahs announced his retirement form concert appearances, it is admirable that we can turn to the recorded legacy of which this 1977 recording is one in which Frank Bridge 's Oration , Concerto elegiaco for Cello and Orchestra is coupled with Phantasm, a Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra in which the soloist is Peter Wallfisch. One year separates these two expressive works with the Piano Rhapsody cast in the traditional three movement format and Oration in eight sections. Twelve years may have elapsed since the end of the Great War but for the pacifist Bridge, there were stark memories of friends lost and this finds expression in the funeral march that is at the heart of this work including a version of the Last Post (Lyrita SRCD 244).
Vaughan Williams was an active participant in the British Army during the Great War, and the horrors of Flanders were to find their way into his symphonies (especially the Pastoral ) as well as the cantata Dona nobis pacem. Written in the shadow of the world events of the mid-1930s, there is an anger about the work which matches the emotional intensity of Britten's War Requiem . References are made to Walt Whitman text. As with the younger composer's work, there is a point at which veterans from opposing sides meet over the grave ( Dirge for Two Veterans ) and although the shadow of the American Civil War may have been the cause of Whitman's verse, the sentiment is as strong as ever.
The work gets a brand new recording coupled with the visionary Sancta Civitas in which the Bach Choir is joined by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Hill.
The recording made in the Poole Centre is spacious but at no time do textures get muddied, and this allows both the body of choristers and orchestra to be aurally terraced whilst the contribution of Winchester Cathedral Choristers is especially memorable in the latter work composed between 1923 and 1925 when the musical world was reacting to a generation of composers who were going to shock with their atonal music. Who had the last laugh? At budget price, this is a "must" (Naxos 8.572424).