Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Royal Festival Hall: Final Concert of the London Season of the Arts – 1951

This is a concert I would have loved to have attended. It was when the Festival of Britain ‘London Season of the Arts’ came to an end. The programme was devoted to music that was largely inspired by London.  Eric Blom (The Manchester Guardian, July 1 1951) wrote that this programme was ‘a pleasant sort of ‘Lion and Unicorn’ jumble with no recognisable plan, yet making a pattern and an impression’. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir presented:-
Malcolm Arnold: Overture: The Smoke
Joseph Haydn: Symphony No.104 in D major (London)
Edmund Rubbra: Festival ‘Te Deum’ 
Edward Elgar: Overture: Cockaigne
Gustav Holst: Prelude & Scherzo: Hammersmith
William Walton: ‘In Honour of the City of London’

Malcolm Arnold’s Overture: The Smoke opened the proceedings. This work had been written in 1948 as a Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra commission. The phrase ‘The Smoke’ was a slang term (used by sailors) for London for obvious reasons. The Times (July 2 1951) reviewer suggested that the work was ‘no more than a series of instrumental quips without the continuity of line or thematic development to make it either a musical picture of a great city or a coherent composition’. Arnold had introduced jazz into this episodic work (he was inspired by the music of Louis Armstrong and himself played the trumpet.)  In some ways it is a ‘jazz impressionistic’ piece and the fact that is not constructed on strict ‘sonata’ form is irrelevant. I accept that it is not amongst the best of Arnold overtures and I agree with Hugo Cole that the ‘big’ tune is not one of Arnold’s best. However, it is a work that deserves and occasional outing. For me it suggests the smoky dive bars and busy streets of Soho in the late nineteen-forties.
Edmund Rubbra’s Te Deum was commissioned for the opening of the Festival of Britain and was suitably reprised at it closure. This is a powerful work that is based on a straightforward tune ‘over which trumpets, voices and strings move in taught counterpoints which flowers exultantly, rather in the way that Holst builds up from a unison to a paean by direct canons, intimations and contrapuntal devices.’ (The Times, July 2 1951).  One reviewer felt that the Te Deum ‘was sung too cautiously to bring out its full exaltation, which fits it for great occasions’. It is a work that I have yet to hear: as far as I can tell it has not been released on CD.
Walton’s ‘In Honour of the City of London’ for choir and orchestra is a setting of William Dunbar’s great poem written towards the end of the 15th century. The score has been criticised for being ‘too busy’ with ‘excessively complex…part writing’ and a general noisiness. However, this ‘splashy-ness’ and overblown rhetoric is surely part and parcel of any description of the diverse, frenetic city whether in Dunbar’s day or our own.  Further north (without the M25) we could regard it as a ‘reet good sing.’
Little need be said about Haydn’s Symphony No.104 in D major (London) which provided the ‘classical ballast’ to an otherwise contemporary programme. Elgar’s ‘Cockaigne’ Overture whilst hardly modern was, in 1951, only 50 years old – the same relationship (more or less) then as the Beatles first LP is to us today (2014). It is a perfect description of a largely imagined and idealised summer’s day in the first year of Edward VII’s reign.  
Holst’s Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo is one of those works that I consider ought to be played more often. I accept that is it written in the composer’s ‘aloof’ style, but the descriptive power of the work in describing the misty early morning on the riverside at Hammersmith Bridge, the ‘noonday’ bustle in Broadway, and the schoolgirls dancing at Brook Green school is masterly.
Due to Sir Adrian Boult’s indisposition the choral works were conducted by Frederic Jackson and the orchestral numbers by Edric Cundell. 

No comments: