Concert Review

HOLLOWAY: Symphony (World Premiere) WAGNER : Die Walküre, Act 3. BBC Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles Prom 20 (RW)

So, a Proms 'Symphony for the Millennium'! Actually, this much-abused term was not Robin Holloway's brief for his major new work; a 'century in sound' is something nearer the truth. What we heard is a 58 minute piece, whose three movements respectively traverse the pre-First World War, Inter-War and post-Second World War periods: the wars themselves present by implication rather than depiction, which Holloway rightly concedes as impossible in an abstract formal design.

The first movement begins from a perspective of late-Romantic opulence, mirroring the growing cultural tensions through allusions that increasingly fail to gel. La Mer flits across the soundscape, as do 'Nimrod', Daphnis et Chlöe and, appropriately, 'Mars, the Bringer of War'. Holloway has often had recourse to such a procedure - the diptych Seascape and Harvest comes to mind - but the allusions here are threaded through the texture with precisely the right degree of subtlety or jarring discontinuity that the music requires. A symphonic tension is implied, rather than stated, through a process of 'negative growth', leaving a 'Lyric epilogue' to shroud the ensuing conflagration in timeless contemplation.

The second movement is a Scherzo whose initial animation parallels the hectic vacuousness of the 'jazz age'. Jazz itself is present, stylised rather than parodied, in the first trio, before the scherzo's activity returns with an increasingly ominous rhythmic tread; symptomatic of the mechanisation and political mass movements of the '30s. The second trio attempts a more lurid exposé of its predecessor, but is quickly overshadowed by the scherzo's final reprise - now an ostinato-fugue of dizzying complexity and out-of-kilter momentum, as the music plunges over the abyss.

Again, an epilogue, entitled 'Totes Meer', to reflect on the years of bloodshed and holocaust.  

The third movement is largely a study in numbed inaction, as alternately aimless instrumental lines and static dissonances fail to promote discernible momentum - as much a commentary, one suspects, on the polarised 'isms' of post-war music as on the anti-dynamics of 'cold war' politics. A final attempt at a clinching climax manages to steer the movement into a lengthy coda, where the music's unfreezing is both a negative analogy - the (unstoppable?) process of 'global warming' - and a very provisional hope that, as the work's thematic substance coheres as a single 'curve' of sound, a more positive resolution may yet be forthcoming.

Ambitious stuff then, realised with the 'courageous caution' that Holloway has long made his own. Does the work succeed as a purely musical entity? Yes, in terms of music that progresses with a sure sense, however subliminal, of tension and release. Is it actually a symphony? Possibly not, in the sense that the qualities just mentioned would seem to function in terms very similar to Holloway's last major orchestral work, the Third Concerto for Orchestra. Put another way, this might well be a symphony in appearance rather than essence. Finding out is one attraction of this absorbing, multi-faceted work: one hopes that either NMC or the BBC have recorded what seemed a well-prepared and authoritative premiere. In the meantime, acquaintance with the Second or Third of Holloway's Concertos for Orchestra (NMC D015M and D039 respectively) is urgently recommended.

Just a brief word on Walküre, Act 3. Even more than Act 1, this portion of the Ring cycle is especially pertinent to concert performance: opening with the infamous 'Ride of the Valkyries' and closing with 'Wotan's farewell' and the 'Magic Fire Music', it tells us - in the space of little more than an hour - why this apparently vainglorious monument to German aspiration should still be an essential feature of contemporary Western 'multi-culture'. The ideas and actions which underlie the tetralogy are not merely products of a distant, chauvinistic philosophy, but reflections of human conflicts and failings that are a part of us today. Purely as emotion, the encounter between Brünnhilde and Wotan, culminating in the latter's 'Lieb'wohl', is as affecting and 'human' as anything in drama; while the music, from there to the close of the act, has been equalled but seldom surpassed in terms of its intrinsic content.

Christine Brewer admirably lasted the course, while James Morris retains much of his natural authority and eloquence. Janice Watson was affecting in the small but crucial role of Sieglinde. Donald Runnicles directed with unobtrusive skill, avoiding bombast and conveying pathos as and when needed. His credentials as a Wagnerian now seem to be established just about everywhere apart from the UK, and his continuing absence from opera houses here is clearly our loss.

Richard Whitehouse


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