Sunday, 4 May 2014

Elisabeth Lutyens: A Centenial Celebration

I must confess that I write this review as something less than the greatest fan of Elizabeth Lutyens. However, over the past few years I have begun to ‘review’ my opinions of her works.
I guess it goes back a number of years (40 actually) to a piece of her music called O Saisons, O chateau. I still remember feeling that this was some of the most appalling music I had heard up to that date.  I realise that the work had been applauded and encored at its 1947 performance and historically it received mixed reviews. But I loathed it.  Many years passed before I heard my next piece of Lutyens. And it was quite ironic. One of her dislikes was what she called ‘cow-pat’ music. By this I guess she meant the folksong inspired works of RVW, Butterworth et al. Now it does seem surprising that with this strong view she composed music for a British Transport Film production called The Heart of England. Both screenplay and music contrive to present a country-scape that reveals ‘gentle hills, shut in valleys, picturesque villages.’  But it is not only scenery that is portrayed: we have blossoming orchards, harrowing of the rich fields, cricket on the village green and traditional fairs. All full of potential for ‘cowpats.’  But somehow she manages to provide an attractive score without falling into the ‘pastoral’ trap. It closer to her hated genre than it is to serialism!

The next piece that has contributed to my re-appraisement was ‘Driving out the Death’ for Oboe and String Trio, Op.81. It was part of a programme of English works for oboe and strings performed by Janet Craxton. I wrote in the review that “this work appears to me to eschew some of the more rigorous excesses of this style of music. There appears to be a greater freedom and flexibility in her use of material.” I was further taken aback by the fact I found it “a moving and interesting work exploiting the qualities of the oboe and the string trio to the full. Certainly this strikes me as being much less hidebound by musical dogma than previous works I have heard.” So it was with some interest and perhaps a little trepidation that I spun this present disc on the metaphorical turntable.
Perhaps the greatest work on this present CD is the first – Présages for Oboe, Op.53. This piece was composed for Janet Craxton. Lutyens subtitles the work a ‘recit. and variations for solo oboe on Cassandra’s lament from the Oresteia.’  Apparently this desolate piece was written at a time of personal distress – just after the death of her husband.
What impressed me was the sense of classical balance that this work exhibits: there does not seem to be a note or a phrase out of place. Lutyens makes use of the twelve note series but does not allow it dominate the work. Présages certainly has a depth and passion that one would perhaps not normally apply to a piece of music written by and large mathematically. Yet Lutyens claimed that the series only really helped her to work out what note came next!  Seven variations and a coda follow the initial recitative. Quite definitely the heart of the work is the desolate 4th variation - ‘adagio.’

I imagine that not every composer would choose to set a passage from Plato, Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. Yet somehow it seems hardly surprising that she decided to set an excerpt from Wittgenstein’s ‘Tracatus Logico-Philosophicus’. The programme notes rightly describe this Germanic prose as being ‘severe.’  Consider some of the texts – ‘The world is the totality of facts;’ ‘The picture is a model of reality;’ 'Logic fills the world' and perhaps 'The riddle does not exist.' These are all thoughts that require deep meditation and cannot really be understood at a single reading.  Yet perhaps it is a work that should be allowed to wash over the listener. I actually think it is one of the loveliest a cappella works I have heard in a long time. Not really suited for church or concert hall, it is the ideal chamber choir piece. Exceptionally difficult and having been given a bad premiere in 1954, this work deserves to be heard on a much more frequent basis.  It is a fine example of balancing and shaping serial ‘lines’ and applying derived atonal chordal sequences, yet never loosing ‘a purity of style and luminosity of sound.’

It is fair to say that the 1963 Wind Trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon Op.52 is nearer to the style of Lutyens’ music that I find hard to enjoy. I did listen to this work three times – more that I would normally allow for most other works that I review. And it is amazing that patterns begin to impose themselves onto what at first hearing is a little anarchic.
The work was commissioned by the BBC for one of the Third Programme Invitation Concerts in 1963. It has seldom been revived since then. This is certainly less than it deserves, being a good example of the genre.
Elisabeth Lutyens did not have much time for organised religion. She had bad experiences as a child with her mother’s Theosophist predilection. So it is interesting and useful to have her only ‘liturgical’ setting on this disc. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis was commissioned by Coventry Cathedral Choir in 1965. This great edifice had been a showcase for post-war artistic endeavour.  As a matter of interest just look at this litany of names: - Jacob Epstein, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Benjamin Britten and Sir Basil Spence himself. Love or loathe this cathedral, one has to accept that it has been inspirational across the board.
Lutyens’ contribution was the present piece – a fine example of modern choral music – with great simplicity being revealed in a complexity of rhythms and moods.

The String Trio Op.57 (1964) is perhaps the most difficult work on this present CD.  The sleeve notes acknowledge that Lutyens puts excessive demands on her players and her audience.  This five movement work is in many ways analogous to Webern’s Op.20: both pieces were composed at a time of deep personal emotion.  There is much in this present work to explore. At first hearing perhaps it can seem like ‘just another serial work,’ yet it is not long before the music begins to reveal hidden depth and passion. This is never going to be a crowd puller, but certainly must be regarded as one of the more effective serial works written in this medium.  And I must confess that I prefer it to the original Webern model!
Considering that only six years separate the String Trio from the Verses of Love, two more different works are hard to imagine – even allowing for difference of media! It is hard to be worried by tone rows or serialism in this choral work. In fact one could almost imagine it being sung by the erstwhile King Singers. It is effectively a three section part song setting of well known texts by Ben Johnson.  A truly gorgeous work – and that is not an epithet I would loosely apply to Elisabeth Lutyens’ music in general. Interesting, involved, deep, passionate, yes - but gorgeous rarely.
The Fantasie Trio for Flute Clarinet and piano Op.55 was composed in 1963. It was commissioned by the Charity Trio for a performance in Dublin. This three movement work is perhaps less introverted that than String Trio. In fact much of this music could be regarded as being quite ‘airy.’  Once again the added value that Lutyens brings to this serial work is the well contrived balance of the parts.
The first movement, although lively to begin with, comes to a quiet end. This leads into the slow movement proper, where the solo clarinet has a prominent part. There is timelessness about this music that defies description – the programme notes refer to ‘mesmeric stillness.’ However the last movement opens things up again with more virile patterns of sound.  After a brief outburst the work ends enigmatically.

The last work on this disc is a setting of words by the great and undervalued Roman philosopher Boethius. The translation which is often truly beautiful is by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is yet another work from that most productive year, 1963.  The programme notes state that although the work was actually published then it may have been composed in 1957 – at the time she was working on another Chaucer work, De Amore.  The text is basically a meditation on ‘the regulation of the starry heavens and the courses of the earthly seasons by Divine Love…’  This is another excellent choral work that certainly does not deserve to be ignored by choirs and audiences.
The recording is excellent and shows Exaudi as a fine ensemble capable to tackling difficult choral music and producing an impressive result.  Endymion are well able to give equally fine results in the chamber works.  But perhaps special mention must go to Melinda Maxwell for her stunning performance of Présages.
The programme notes are excellent and of course the texts of the motets are provided.
This is not easy music. No one of these works can be approached without considerable effort by both players and listeners. But I must say that typically this effort has been worthwhile. There is no way that I will claim that Elisabeth Lutyens is one of my ‘Desert Island’ composers – but I can confess to readers that I was wrong to write her off all those years ago.
An attractive, interesting and often quite moving CD.  I must admit that typically I do prefer Lutyens’ choral works on this disc to the chamber ones. The one exception to this is the wonderful Présages.

Elizabeth LUTYENS (1906-1983): 
Présages for solo oboe Op.53 (1963) [10:35]
Motet (Excerpta Tracati Logico-Philosophico) Op.27 (1963) [9:46]
Wind Trio for flute, clarinet & bassoon Op.52 (1963)
Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis (1965) [7:41]
String Trio Op.57 (1964) [12:24]
Verses of Love (1970) [6:07]
Fantasie Trio for flute, clarinet & piano Op.55 (1963) [11:50]
The Country of the Stars (1963) [8:23]
Exaudi with James Weeks, director and Endymion
NMC Recordings NMC - D124
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

No comments: