With Idil Biret (piano) and John Gibbons (conductor).Symphony No 1 ‘Spring’ (Schumann) Symphonic Variations (Franck, with piano), Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise in Eb major (Chopin, with piano), Symphony No 4 Opus 53 (Rubbra).
Edmund Rubbra surfaced from underground at Worthing on Sunday. The first professional performance for 14 years of any of his symphonies anywhere happened under John Gibbons’ British striped baton. Rubbra’s 4th was also the last to be thus aired, by Rubbra interpreter supreme, the late, lamented Richard Hickox, at a BBC Prom in 2001.
It was written by an army sergeant and soon premiered at The Proms in 1942. Operatic great, Sir John Tomlinson, afterwards on Sunday, was not alone in sensing the music as a symphony about conflict, alongside the several celebrated British works the 1939-45 war years produced. The Worthing audience had no difficulty in responding to the music and may be mystified to know that for more than a decade the BBC’s own orchestras have declined to perform it. Add the early passing of Hickox and no other disciple has persuaded any professional orchestra to give an audience the experience.
Does the BBC know something we don’t? Given the attentive and open-minded Worthing audience he has cultivated himself – “I like the chance to challenge people” – Gibbons had little hesitation. This was barely an audience challenge at all, no road map was needed, and its hearers needed no persuasion by former Rubbra composition pupil Tony Perkiss’ guest programme notes that this was British music of worthy quality, unfathomably neglected.
The music immediately struck me as coherent, substantial, authoritative, and possessing a distinctive voice. I don’t go along all the way with Sir John but found the level and mood something more subtle than stoic resistance amid suffering. There was a stronger philosophical feel than graphical, despite the music’s often measured and persistent tread; like a problem being confronted with a striving for a solution, with even, in the lighter middle movement, a feeling of temporary detachment, or of seeing a longer view. I got no mood of brooding or funeral. More something of concern and overview, rather than tension or fear. A sense of aspiration, with weight.
And I can see how WSO fan Toby Ridge, who knows the work, grasps a spiritual dimension. Maybe it has nothing to do with war. Not every wartime composition is about it. We assume, and so doing, we judge, often wrongly.
Placed last in the afternoon, it had the audience leaving the hall certain they had experienced something of note, uplifted by having done so, stirred and rewarded. Rubbra’s son, Adrian Yardley, 68, from Cheam, was in the audience and naturally delighted at the results. It may not be happy music. But there culminates a positive final release into affirmation or a solution. It’s not tough music, nor difficult. These British listeners evidently recognised its language. The WSO should play it elsewhere – in Rubbra’s birthplace for a start. Let the WSO, with their coal, refill the long empty scuttles of Northampton.
The WSO greeted its crowd on this bright spring day with Schumann’s earnest and poetically conscientious first symphony, so named after the season. All the instruments get a lengthy say, Monica McCarron’s flute fronted the avian chorus, Gibbons let forth the poet’s boisterous spirits and springing of surprises, and, fetters shed, took the music to its final shriek of joy.
Idil Biret is a familiar, diminutive figure at the Worthing Steinway piano and while exuding immense authority echoing her 74 years, you’d never guess her age, nor witness anything but a giving nature to the musicians around her and her audience. Turkey created ‘Idil’s Law’ so their child prodigy could set a precedent and study piano abroad. Many - yes, many - years later, her legendary Paris teacher Nadia Boulanger conducted when Biret, aged 17, returned to Ankara to play Schumann’s Concerto and Franck’s Symphonic Variations (in the same concert, if you please).
Similarly today, she came with two works. The same superb Symphonic Variations, popular until falling from concert-hall use this century, appear more noted as a Frederick Ashton score in the Royal Ballet archive. Few among the WSO ranks had played it, and I fear their unfamiliarity may have inhibited Biret’s perceived expressive freedom. The key juncture was fluffed when the dreamy transition breaks into gaiety but this was not their fault and the WSO confirmed that its mostly London-based members are of the world-revered reputation of top British orchestral musicians for being fast learners and risers to the occasion.
After the interval Biret sat down and showed why she is an honorary Pole in the nation of Chopin, whose entire work she has recorded for Naxos. Chopin’s orchestra merely comments and decks out his own improvisatory piano style and in this Biret can scarcely have any superiors any time in history. So almost literally the WSO could sit back with us to enjoy virtuosity always subservient to the music as Biret’s Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise was presented on a golden plate, exciting, breathtakingly immaculate, and staggeringly consummate.
Final WSO concerts this season (Assembly Hall, Sundays, 2.45pm), April 17: ‘Turkish Delight’ – Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 5 ‘Turkish’ (soloist Boris Brovtsyn), Haydn’s Symphony No 43 ‘Mercury’, Arensky’s Variations of a Theme of Tchaikovsky, Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings.
May 15: ‘Fantastical Images’ – Wagner’s ‘The Ride of The Valkyries’ from The Ring, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (soloist Arta Arnicane, Sussex International Piano Competition winner 2010), Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’.
Next Interview Concerts (Fridays at the Denton), March 25 (Good Friday, 7.15pm) – Anna Bulkina: Bach’s Fantasy & Fugue in A minor BWV 944, Prokofiev’s Sonata No 2 and ‘Mercutio’ from the ballet Romeo & Juliet, Scriabin’s five Preludes Opus 16 and two pairs of Poèmes Opus 32 & 69, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Scenes from a Russian Village’, Liszt’s ‘After a Lecture on Dante.
April 15 (7.30pm) – Varvara Tarasova (SIPC winner 2015): Beethoven, Sonata No 26 in Eb ‘Les Adieux’; Brahms, Eight Piano Pieces Opus 76; selection of Chopin pieces.
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