Image credit: Bhagesh Sachania
Eve Daniell (soprano), Rachael Cox (mezzo-soprano), Angharad Lyddon (contralto), Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor), Alexander Learmonth (baritone), Bristol University Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra / John Pickard
Victoria Rooms, Bristol; Saturday 12th March, 2016
Beethoven Mass in C, Op.86 (1807)
Brian The Vision of Cleopatra (1907)
Written by Richard Whitehouse
The regular concerts given by the Bristol University Symphony Orchestra can be relied upon for innovative programming, as was proved this evening with the first performance in 107 years of the most ambitious earlier work by Havergal Brian – his cantata The Vision of Cleopatra.
The work was finished in 1907 and premiered at the Southport Festival two years on, where it enjoyed a succès d’estime but no further performances. Loss of the orchestral score and parts during the 1941 Blitz made any revival impossible until 2014, when John Pickard undertook the new orchestration that received its first hearing tonight. Brian’s orchestral pieces from the 1900s offered a viable point of departure, though Cleopatra is hardly more indebted to these than to Pickard’s own large-scale works. The outcome is highly audacious within the context of British music from this period, notably for its taking on board those possibilities opened-up by Richard Strauss in his controversial opera Salomé – unheard in the UK until 1910, but which Brian had most likely studied from the score and absorbed its innovations accordingly.
Whatever else (and for all that Gerald Cumberland’s rather tepid libretto tries hard to suggest otherwise), Cleopatra is no anodyne Edwardian morality. After the orchestral Slave Dance that functions as a lively overture, the cantata unfolds as a sequence of nominally symphonic movements: a speculative dialogue between two of the queen’s retainers, then an increasingly fervent duet between Cleopatra and Antony followed, in its turn, by an expansive aria for the former; divided by a speculative choral interlude and concluded by a Funeral March of stark immediacy. So systematic yet by no means inflexible a formal trajectory serves to predicate expressive continuity over scenic evocation, a sure pointer to Brian’s future as a leading mid-century symphonist who operated at an intriguing remove from the Modernism of this period.
The Vision of Cleopatra may have fazed its first-night performers, but there was little tentative or underwhelming about tonight’s rendition. Eve Daniell was sympathetic as Iris and Rachael Cox even more so as Charmion, complementing each other effectively as the retainers, while Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts made an ardent showing as Antony whose tendency to histrionics was understandable. Angharad Lyddon, though, stole the show (as she needed to) as Cleopatra – bringing real eloquence to her climactic aria while evincing palpable depth of tone that made light of Brian’s exacting demands. Bristol University Choral Society sang with evident lustre, and Pickard secured a committed response from his forces – alive to those audacities that the composer doubtless put into his orchestral writing and which were grippingly to the fore here.
The first half had seen a welcome revival of Beethoven’s Mass in C, a work destined to live in the shadow of its ‘solemn’ successor but whose almost cyclical constuction is allied to a generosity of spirit in itself affecting. Some fine choral and solo singing – notably from the baritone Alexander Learmonth – was allied to a perceptive interpretation which (rightly) put emotional emphasis on the Benedictus, most enquiring of this work’s sections whose repose communicated itself to tonight’s listeners as surely as it eluded those hearing it 109 years ago.