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CLASSICAL  February 2008

CLASSICAL February 2008

Subject:

Britannia Ruling

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 25 Feb 2008 15:42:07 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (121 lines)

Donald Runnicles
Britannia

*  Edward Elgar: "Pomp and Circumstance" March Nos. 1 & 4
*  Peter Maxwell Davies: An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise
*  Mark-Anthony Turnage: Three Screaming Popes
*  James MacMillan: Britannia
*  Benjamin Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles.
Telarc CD-80677 Total time: 71:48

Summary for the Busy Executive: Schizophrenic.

This CD features music from three eras of British music from the last
hundred years: the ages of Elgar, Britten, and Peter Maxwell Davies.
Mark-Anthony Turnage and James MacMillan both show the influence of
Maxwell Davies.

Donald Runnicles does best with Maxwell Davies and beyond.  He turns
in a streamlined Elgar P & C No. 4, which kind of works.  However, it
fails miserably in the first march.  It sounds as if he can't wait to
get finished.  I grew up with Barbirolli.  Barbirolli took his time
without ever dragging.  It gave these works a gravitas and a complexity
largely missing from Runnicles, whose tempo reduces these works damn
near to triviality Elgar as the brainless musical Col.  Blimp, an image
his hostile critics have loved to push.  But Elgar was far more complicated.
His contemporaries, after all, regarded the Pomp and Circumstance marches
as troubled and full of the harshness of modern life.

The Sinfonia da Requiem, probably a twentieth-century classic, starts
out okay, in a kind of limbo.  You wait for Runnicles to get something
to happen.  And wait.  The first movement, "Lacrymosa," rumbles like the
later War Requiem's "Requiem aeternam" and "Libera me." But Runnicles's
account seems somehow downright sunny, to the point of turning the
Sinfonia into another piece entirely.  The score, written in 1939, was
the pacifist Britten's fulfillment of a commission from the Japanese
government.  Britten intended it as a sermon against war.  The Japanese
considered themselves insulted and refused to perform the work, although
they paid Britten's fee.  For many years, the composer refused to conduct
it, because he considered it "too personal." When he finally took up the
piece, he delivered an account that roasts your insides.  The first
movement, heavy on timpani and bass drum, crushes like the North Atlantic
in a storm -- pretty much the brooding atmosphere of Peter Grimes.  In
the second, the "Dies irae," he slaps you around and guffaws, a Breughelish
vision of Hell.  The third, "Requiem aeternam," brings only an uneasy
rest.  You toss and turn throughout eternity.  Andre Previn's reading,
on his debut recording as a classical conductor (my introduction to the
work), served up a different, though hardly less blistering, reading for
Columbia (not currently available).  Britten's reaction to Previn: "Wow!"
Runnicles's point of view -- again, something more refined and lightweight
-- fails the work.  It's like listening to Hamlet recited by Betty Boop.

Runnicles does much better with the post-Modern stuff.  At the distance
of the more than thirty years, since I first encountered his music,
it strikes me that Peter Maxwell Davies stands as the most significant
composer of his generation.  Certainly, he has the most musical progeny.
I wish I could trumpet my own prescience, but in 1972 I happened to find
myself in London at a performance of the opera Taverner and, a few days
later, at a concert featuring the Taverner Variations.  I detested both.
Since then, with more experience of contemporary music under my belt,
the composer has either thrilled me or bored me, with nothing in between.
Maxwell Davies's Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise has always reminded me,
in an odd way, of Copland's El Salon Mexico -- both a very sophisticated
summing-up of contemporary techniques, disguised as Pops pieces.  By the
way, both composers described their scores as "postcards." Maxwell Davies
composes to a program -- and vividly, I might add.  The music conjures
up dramatic pictures: the guests arriving in the rain, various toasts
drunk, the evening degenerating into inebriated lurching about, the band
ensemble going to hell, a sentimental slightly tipsy toast to the happy
couple, and a bright sunrise as the guests finally go home.  One neat
feature among many in the work is a passage for the Highland bagpipes.
The composer says that, while the bagpipes are not indigenous to the
Orkneys (Norwegians ruled the islands during the eighth and ninth
centuries), he might be forgiven, since the north of Scotland lies just
over the water.  Runnicles and Atlanta get the humor and good nature of
the piece but at the same time manage to play vividly and with great
refinement.  This performance won't replace the composer's own on Collins
Classics, but it has its own validity.

I always wonder how much listeners get out of Mark-Anthony Turnage's
Three Screaming Popes if they don't know the Francis Bacon paintings.
Turnage gives you an atmosphere rather than a translation from pigment
to music, but that atmosphere is puzzling and complicated.  At least
in my case, knowing the pictures brings the work into emotional focus.
Turnage's music gets in your face.  He has a raw -- some have gone so
far to call it "punk" -- sensibility.  Runnicles isn't that kind of
conductor.  He gives you a tough world, but not a nightmarish one.  On
the other hand, the Atlantans play beautifully.  In many ways, Turnage
plays with the orchestra, coming up with a steady stream of new and
arresting sounds.  This is what Runnicles emphasizes.  However, if you
prefer a performances that goes for emotional broke, go for Rattle on
EMI.

James MacMillan's Britannia seems to me a
counterpart to his masterful Scotch Bestiary (see my review at
http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/c/cha10377a.html), though
in this case a bit cooler.  MacMillan, an ardent Scot, can afford to
take a less jaundiced look at the English, who are, after all, not his
people.  You might call this piece a fantasia on "patriotic airs." Much
of it consists of phrases from Elgar's Cockaigne, as well as "God Save
the Queen," reflected in fun-house mirrors, but it lacks much the satiric
savagery of the Bestiary.  It seems to fall under the mantle of a
good-natured ribbing, as if MacMillan tries to get the English to take
themselves less seriously.  Interspersed with the patriotic gas one finds
some beautiful quiet passages highly evocative of folk song, as if this
were the real England and the rest England in heavy theatrical makeup.
To me, Runnicles's reading succeeds best of all the items on the program,
although I haven't heard the composer's own on Chandos.

In sum, Runnicles and the Atlanta always play beautifully, although
sometimes they miss the point of the works they play.  The sound is
Telarc's usual stunning.

Steve Schwartz

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