Friday, 13 August 2010

Revelations and Psalms

The Three Choirs Festival is entering its final days, and what an exciting one it has been for Gurney! As has been said elsewhere on this blog, this week is in part a mini Gurney festival, with rare and first performances of orchestral, choral and chamber works, as well as works in the area regarded as Gurney's metier: song.

The opportunity to have works performed by professional ensembles is truly reaping rewards this week. On Wednesday the slow movement of Gurney's A major quartet was performed by the Dante Quartet in St. Mary's Church, Painswick. I was uncertain as to whether I would be able to get there, having been singing for a morning workshop, but I finished in time to take a taxi from Gloucester and reach Painswick in time for the concert, and I was glad I did so. The perfect, clean and sensitive execution of the movement proved the work to be everything I had imagined it to be in my mind's ear whilst preparing the edition. An often chromatic work, it is structurally coherent (something Gurney is often accused of lacking) and its argument clear. Perhaps most gratifying, talking to members of the quartet afterwards, was the passing comment about how they are sure the work will grow, interpretively and in understanding, as they perform it more. I hope they will indeed perform it more - and perhaps even add the other two extant movements, one of which - a molto allegro scherzo which probably belongs to the quartet, although it isn't titled as such - is a wonderful, if fiendishly difficult movement.

The great excitement yesterday was the premiere of A Gloucestershire Rhapsody, ninety years after its completion, in Cheltenham Town Hall. Prior to the performance, my co-conspirator in preparing the edition, Ian Venables (chairman of the Gurney Society and Trust and a composer in his own right) gave an insightful lecture on the work, placing it in the context of his other orchestral works, describing where Gurney is coming from in what he is trying to say, and also giving a few insights into the musical influences upon the Rhapsody. The latter was particularly interesting: although I know the work intimately in a textual sense, and I have my own views as to what Gurney is expressing in the work - many of which correlated with Ian's, I have not identified any specific potential progenitors in the music of the piece. Ian's suggestions were inspiring (Richard Strauss, the nature motif from Also Sprach Zarathustra) and perhaps, for me, a little provocative (Gustav Holst's Turn back O man, which I am not convinced he would have known).

Something that did occur to me during the talk, however, is that we have yet to consider the influence of Gurney's playing of the baryton in the Gloucester Battalion band. These are the sorts of lines of research which can take over rather: what was the repertoire of the band, and given the dominance of marches in Gurney's orchestral work (notably in the War Elegy, which marching songs/tunes did they play? One wonders whether Gurney's baryton experience might have also influenced his use of brass in the Gloucestershire Rhapsody and War Elegy. Interesting things to be mulled over indue course.

But, returning to the performance: some of the tempi were slightly swifter than Ian and I had envisaged, but the work was terrifically executed (what a joy English orchestral musicians are, being able to pick up these works so quickly and play with such conviction!), and conducted with understanding by Martyn Brabbins, who we discovered afterwards to be a closet Gurney fan! (He has previously recorded Herbert Howells's orchestrations of two Gurney songs for Hyperion.) Having been working on the piece for the last seven or eight months, preparing the scores for this premiere, it was really quite emotional to be hearing it in the flesh. More gratifying was the general reaction to the work by the public, most of whom found it a remarkable and enlightening piece, with so many questioning why it had never been performed before. Perhaps it is that the time appears now to be right for Gurney, when tonality and melody has come to the fore, after the preponderance of interest in more modernist music; and perhaps too, the growth of Gurney is now coming to a head, from the procession of proselytising of his work by Gerald Finzi, Leonard Clark, Michael Hurd, P.J. Kavanagh, Anthony Boden, Kelsey Thornton and George Walter, Pamela Blevins, in the founding of the Gurney Society fifteen years ago, and in the current band of happy Gurnites... One should also mention Adrian Partington, Artistic Director of the Gloucester Thee Choirs Festival: one can produce editions galore of unperformed Gurney works, but if no-one is willing to programme them, then there is only so much we can do! It is to him that Gurney will be most grateful, I am sure, for giving him the opportunity to be heard.

Yesterday Anne Boden reminded me of something Gurney said to Winnie Chapman: that his time will come and his work will have its day; it will take time - perhaps many years - but its time will come. And so it has.

I have this morning learned one further excitement: a premiere of which I was not aware until now. In the service of Choral Evensong tomorrow, Gurney's chant to psalm 23 will be given what may be its first performance. Composed in 1914 whilst at the Royal College of Music, the chant is not at all musically remarkable, but it is important in that Gurney used to sing the psalm to himself to this chant whilst serving in the trenches at Fauquissart in 1916 to steady his nerves.

And so to today: I am off to the archive to continue getting the first part of the new archive catalogue live online; then The Trumpet this evening (see my post earlier this week), and songs and psalms tomorrow. I look forward to seeing you there!

1 comment:

Pamela said...

Thank you for this, Philip. If I couldn't be there for all the events -- being 3600 miles away on the other side of the Atlantic is rather an obstacle -- your account is the next best thing. It sounds like everything has been a success and that we might have created even more interest in Gurney as a result.