A celebration of Parry at the BBC Proms

Hubert Parry’s hope-filled symphonic masterpiece, Symphony No. 5 (Symphonic Fantasia ‘1912’) from 1912 was paired with three works
written in the shadow of the war, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and Pastoral Symphony, and Gustav
Holst’s Ode to Death, none of them obviously war inflected but
each piece affected by their composer’s wartime experience. This year is
also the centenary of Parry’s death, and as well his symphony the concert
also included his large-scale anthem, Hear my words, ye people.
Tai Murray was the violin soloist in the Lark Ascending, with
Francesca Chiejina (soprano) and Ashley Riches (bass) soloists in the Parry

Parry’s fifth (and last) symphony was premiered at the Queen’s Hall in
London in December 1912. It consists of four linked movements; that each
movement has a title (‘Stress’, ‘Love’, ‘Play’, ‘Now’) suggests the work’s
tone-poem like character, and this is emphasised by the way Parry has
labelled the various themes (‘Brooding thought’, ‘Tragedy’, ‘Wrestling
Thought’ etc). As a symphonist, we can hear Parry’s debt to Elgar, to
Brahms and to Liszt but we should also remember that Elgar the symphonist
owed something to Parry. Parry’s writing, whilst having a sound akin to
Elgar, lacks the latter composer’s sheer grandiloquence and the fifth
symphony is a thoughtful and in many ways poetic work.

The first movement opens with a theme which Parry labelled ‘Brooding
thought’ and it brooded indeed as the slow introduction developed
restlessly into an ‘Allegro’ with Elgarian overtones (or perhaps we should
say that Elgar has Parry overtones!). The orchestra made a fine, mellow
sound, with much ebb and flow of detail, moments of calm and thrilling
drama. The second movement included a lovely duet for bass clarinet and
solo cello (evidently the bass clarinet was one of Parry’s most favourite
instruments), and also a remarkably noble tune. Yet the movement did not
progress in an obvious fashion, and there was a remarkable amount of
complexity in the detail whilst at the end everything simply subsided into
the scurrying delight and perky rhythms of the third movement. This had a
delightful, country-dance style trio featuring the horns. The finale
brought thoughts of Elgar again, but with a more rumbustious quality to the
big tune. Parry gives this a terrific development, which strives to a
triumphant close. Throughout, Brabbins and the orchestra played the music
as if they had known it for ever, with lovely string phrasing and fine
woodwind solos.

This was followed by a far more familiar work, RVW’s Lark Ascending with the American violinist Tai Murray. From the
opening with its hushed strings, and Murray’s bare-there solo, it was clear
that she took a very particular view of the work. Her solo line, all
elegant fine-grained sound, seemed to go on for ever and throughout the
piece tempos were relaxed (without ever being over-done) and Murray
emphasised the time-less, contemplative nature of the piece rather than
worrying about the descriptive natural detail. This is, in fact, all apiece
with the modern view of the work as arising out of RVW’s war-time
experiences (it was written originally in 1914 and revised in 1920). The
middle section had greater vitality, with a clarity and transparency to the
orchestral contribution, but then we relaxed into a truly magical ending.

After the interval we had Parry’s Hear my words, ye people for
choir, brass, organ, solo soprano (Francesca Chiejina) and bass solo
(Ashley Riches). Originally written for the Diocesan Choral Festival at
Salisbury Cathedral in 1894, the work alternates between full chorus and
semi-chorus, with sections for the soloists. It started with an organ
peroration (from Adrian Partington on the Royal Albert Hall organ) and
throughout the organ part was important, hardly accompanying and rather
commenting though there were times when it seemed rather too prominent in
the mix in the hall. The soloists were placed quite far back, and neither
completely felt present enough in the hall though both sang confidently.
All in all, the piece rather failed to hang together, the individual
sections never coalescing into a significant work, and this was emphasised
by the final section when we suddenly jumped into a memorable tune which
became a well-known hymn tune.

Thankfully, Holst’s Ode to death was a richer and subtler piece.
Premiered in 1919, it arose out of Holst’s war-time experiences with the
YMCA in Salonica and Istanbul. A setting of Walt Whitman for chorus and
orchestra, Holst matches the individual tone of the different verses yet
melds the whole into a unique piece. The opening sounded aetherial with
transparent scoring when, listening to the words (‘Come lovely and soothing
death/Undulate round the world, serenely arriving’), we might have expected
something more elegiac. This is Holst in The Planets mode (in fact
written just before in 1914-1916 and premiered in 1918), and for all the
richness of the harmony there was a certain coolness particularly arising
out of Holst’s fondness for bitonality. In the ‘Dark mother always gliding
near with soft feet’, Holst’s writing almost suggests a march, yet the
material is hardly martial and Brabbins really brought out the work’s
subtle poetry. Holst the mystic emerged in the ‘Lost in the loving floating
ocean’, a truly remarkable passage, whilst the concluding section with its
bitonality and otherworldly tension, was truly eerie.

This was the work’s first performance at The Proms, and I have not heard it
live since I sang in a performance with the University chorus as a student
in 1974. It is puzzling why such a rich, fascinating work, a secular
requiem in all but name, is not better known.

The final work in the programme was another deceptive one. It is fatally
easy to fall back on Peter Warlock’s satirical comment ‘ like a cow looking
over a gate’, yet the piece had its origins in the First World War, and the
landscape being evoked is wartime France. This is another contemplative
meditation on war, rather than an angry striving. It is worth remembering
that another British First World War participant, Sir Arthur Bliss,
produced his Morning Heroes after the war, another thoughtful,
troubling work.

There is little fast or loud music in RVW’s symphony, yet it is full of
expressive and passionate moments. The opening movement was quietly
concentrated, with quite a flowing tempo and the music gradually building
in layers. Brabbins beautifully controlled the ebb and flow of ideas,
constantly keeping the music moving yet revealing a lot of detail in the
orchestra. As drama progressed, he and the orchestra relished the lush
textures and brought out a surprising amount of passion. The second
movement opened with a melancholy horn call (again we had bitonality as a
profoundly expressive device), creating an eerie moment. The concentrated
texture of the orchestral playing was broken by the atmospheric off-stage
natural trumpet, creating a moment where time was suspended. The vigorous
scherzo was remarkably rumbustious, with pastoral flute passages and an
English country dance on the brass, all mixed into something characteristic
of RVW. Then suddenly it turns into a perky English country dance. The
final movement includes a wordless soprano, off-stage, here Francesca
Chiejina who sang with a very rich timbre and create sound which was very
present in the hall, there was nothing aetherial about this soprano she was
a full-blooded woman (RVW’s wife talked about this passaged being about
‘that essence of summer where a girl passes singing’ and this was a flesh
and blood girl). This solo unleashed complex passions in the orchestra,
leading to a magical ending where the soprano solo reappears, then
evaporates leaving just a high violin note.

This was a fine and thoughtful concert which paired the music of Parry with
that of the younger generation of English composers and giving us the more
thoughtful side of English music from the 1910s and 1920s.

Robert Hugill

Prom 17: Hubert Parry – Symphony No.5; Ralph Vaughan Williams –The Lark Ascending; Hubert Parry – Hear my words, ye people; Gustav Holst – Ode to Death;
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Pastoral Symphony (No.3)

Tai Murray (violin), Francesca Chiejina (soprano), Ashley Riches
(bass-baritone), Adrian Partington (organ)

BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Martyn
Brabbins (conductor)

Royal Albert Hall, London; Friday 27th July 2018

image_description=Prom 17: Martyn Brabbins with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC National Chorus of Wales
product_title= Prom 17: Martyn Brabbins with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC National Chorus of Wales
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id= Above: Ashley Riches

Photo credit: BBC/Mark Allan