Finzi, Bax and Dominic Nudd

I ought not to have attended the World AIDS Day concert by the LGSO (London Gay Symphony Orchestra) on Sunday 25th, November 2007. It had nothing to do with the band, or its peformance. I just realised quite early on in the proceeding that I needed a good night’s sleep. I had also managed to arrive late, despite setting out quite early! This may explain a certain element of the acerbic in what is written below.

The programme consisted of three pieces of English music, Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Gerald Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto, and Bax’s Symphony No. 5. I was shooed into the choir/organ loft in the course of the Britten, and would not dare say much about the performance. It sounded fine, indeed superfine, but there were, or appeared to be from where I was sitting, problems of intonation in the upper strings.

There were similar problems at the start of the Finzi Concerto. He is a minor English composer (the name if Venetian Jewish – I think) for some people being a ‘minor English composer’ is the same as ‘unlisten-to-able’. This is probably a masterpiece and is exquisitely lovely. (And ‘exquisitively lovely’ is not a phrase that presents itself to my mind on a regular basis, let me tell you). There is very little ‘English pastoral’ about it, though I had the notion that the end of the first movement was a reference to a fox barking. A very well behaved fox, and very far in the distance, I should say (and it is just my notion). The slow Andante movement was toe-curlingly lovely. The last, rondo, movement has been used as the ‘Intro’ for a radio record request programme – I think – probably several decades before most members of the LGSO were born.

Martyn Robinson, the soloist, gave up the clarinet between 2000 and 2002, to ‘pursue a non musical career’. Thankfully, according to the Programme, “he teaches for the County Music Service”, in Suffolk. And turns in magical performances like this one “in regular concertSeand recitals in and around Suffolk and London”. He is planning to leave in the UK, so if you want to hear him ‘live’ you’ll have to do it PDQ.

Bax is a composer I have a problem with, I don’t really like his music, which is not the same as not being able to appreciate it. But, despite what is claimed, appreciation and liking are closely related. Bax wants his audience to be ‘stirred’ or even shaken, I am rarely either. Dominic Nudd, who wrote the programme notes, and is presumably the same person as one of the Double Basses, mentions Tintagel and The Garden of Fand. They are tone poems, and Bax could shape them any way he liked. They sound, and probably ought to sound like good quality film music. They are not symphonic. Bax encountered the ‘finale problem’ composing what he described as ‘symphonies’.

This was occasioned by the fact that they were writing after 1900. (Admittedly it was a bit more complex that that). Many composers found that a rosuing apotheosis at the end of the final movement was no longer appropriate to the sort of society they lived in. This was partly, in England, a matter of turning away from German models of composition. Bax’s Fifth is essentially a three movement work with an ‘Epilogue’ stuck on the end. It is a gesture towards a triumphant apotheosis. It is, like a number of similar movements in English music of the time, rather half-hearted. It is especially noticeable in a man like Bax, whom one suspects would have loved to ‘give it the gutty’.

The LGSO, under Simon Bowler (the new Leader is Jenny Kortal) gave a committed performance. But, as noted above, I was not in a really receptive frame of mind, and need serious advocacy to appreciate Bax.

I have a wee bone to pick with Dominic Nudd. Bax told pianist Harriet Cohen, his beloved (there waSeanother one, Mary Gleaves) that the two tone poems mentioned were “the last of my Irish music”. Dominic also writes that Bax wrote “playSeand poetry under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne”, implicitly “from 1907 until 1914”. ‘Dermot O’Byrne’ wrote inflammatory verse about the Easter Rising of 1916, and was censored by the Military Authorities in Ireland. His Third Piano Sonata of 1920, as Dominic writes was “a symphony, without orchestra”, a matter which Bax soon put right by by 1922. The whole work, and the “new, deeply elegiac slow movement” he (Bax) described as a ‘war symphony’.

The war in question being the so-called Irish ‘Civil War’ ‘So-called’ because there was no question that all of those involved wanted an entirely prosaic Republic. All felt that Downing Street’s threat of “immediate and terrible” war was credible. Some felt it needed to be circumvented rather than confronted. Others felt that their oath and the memory their dead comrades, demanded resistance to even overwhelmingly superior power.

I am bamboozled as to why this band is not more widely recognised, and why it is not turning away hordes of eager listeners, at each and every concert.The LGSO is not just a London but a national treasure.

So rush to give them lots of cash, at: sponsorship@lgso.org.uk

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