By the time the BBC have run their five years of World War 1 commemorations in various art and media forms, an obscure, virtually unknown eight-minute piece heard in the Worthing Symphony Orchestra’s Remembrance Sunday Concert may have become famous.
John Gibbons, vice-chairman of the British Music Society, opened the concert with Heroic Elegy. Its premier was conducted by its composer little more than a month after its completion in July 1918. That man was a Grenadier Guard on service leave. Two months later he, London-born Yorkshire husband, Ernest Bristow Farrar, was commissioned to France. Within 12 days he was dead. Killed in battle, he had dedicated his Heroic Elegy’s creation ‘For Soldiers’.
Our celebrated War Poets could pocket their portable poems. Musical compositions can be neither as easily carried around, nor as swiftly created. They need months rather than moments. Thus our War Composers’ music has tended to emerge before or after the conflict itself. Either born of premonition, fear and apprehension, or in memorium, mourning or homage. Heard when married to film, images or simply silence, they speak and move with the speechless strength of poetry felt.
Gibbons and the WSO used back-projected still photographs of trenches and battlefield while playing Farrar’s Heroic Elegy − as it should become known. The music’s effect was shot through with power, poignance and accumulative poetry of precisely the kind that ought to secure its place in the national musical repertoire of remembrance.
That process may have begun this Remembrance Sunday. Gibbons reported on Facebook that it was unexpectedly played on Radio 3, and there is every reason why he might repeat its performance annually for 5 years and make it Worthing’s own honouring of the war dead and traumatised survivors.
Another soldier wrote the second piece of the WSO concert. Sir Arthur Bliss, post World War 2 destined to take command of the Queen’s Musick, had commanded men throughout 1939-45 and lost a brother. His huge Piano Concerto on this occasion seemed like a continual effort to out-fight continually resurfacing conflict, though in there too seemed unbridled celebrations of survival, peace and hope. And yet, it was written before it all in early 1939.
Another Gibbons act of post-war music curation, though played rarely owing to its difficulty, this concerto brought back to Worthing the winner of its Sussex International Piano Competition, the remarkable Thai talent, Poom Prommachart. Asked by Gibbons if he’d learn the Bliss Concerto, Prommachart did so, he told me in just 2½ weeks, squeezed in between his concerts.
He said: “I was lucky because Kathron Sturrock, who is a very good musician, knows this piece. She was helping me practicing on two pianos. I have to say musically, I didn’t learn with anyone because when I graduated [from the Royal College this year], Kathron told me to be myself. You need to have your own voice and your own interpretation.”
Prommachart’s Worthing competition week host, Margaret Campkin, turned his pages and it soon showed itself to be a titanic challenge. True, he broke sweat, needing to wipe his eyes behind his glasses in ridiculously fleeting respites during the last six or seven minutes. But essentially there was astonishment at just how much Prommachart appeared to have to spare after the overall tumult. After embracing Gibbons at the finish and taking three curtain calls to a storming reception from the audience he had more than the average piano soloist left to give.
In other words, an encore. Announcing with Brahmsian humour he would “now play something simple”, there came Liszt’s super-dextrous Paganini Study, La Campanella. Then, he told me afterwards, “I felt so relaxed and just love this hall so much, and this audience, I thought I’d play another”. Announcing he would “now play something beautiful”, it was Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s Widmung.
Prommachart’s won more competitions than he’s had holidays and here was a personality first stunning, then charming, then stunning again, his audience. Time will tell if the Prommachart phenomenon turns into long-term piano platform success. He will be back next Spring for an Interview Concert in The Denton, probably of Metner, Mozart and Chopin.
Barber’s Adagio for Strings has become in recent decades a memorial piece of a unique quality. Gibbons never gets in the way of any music he conducts and we received this music’s sense of final acceptance that the greatest questions are unanswerable.
Then came Sibelius’ 5th Symphony. After all the years when his successor Jan Cervenka hated this composer’s ‘turgidness’, he’d say − presumably having been unexcited by interpreters such as Colin Davis ― Gibbons and the WSO gave us exciting, mounting, multicoloured, authentic, Finnish Sibelius.
Oboist Adrian Rowlands gave us those special Sibelian shafts of chilled melody and the strings whipped up the snow across the fields and blew ice particles through the door cracks we never knew were there.
The scherzo’s exhilarating climax reached furnace-white WSO heat and was another great moment of 2014. And after Sibelius’ flock of 16 swans took flight in the finale Gibbons later brought them back past us again, this time at higher altitude, in a slow, inexorably measured approach towards the conclusion that painted a landscape wide and noble after a windswept day.
Timpanist Robert Millett, who had already shone in the Bliss, was given free rein by Gibbons in the loud final two kettledrum strokes of writer Donald Tovey’s ‘hammer swings of the god Thor’. Sibelius offers options with two beaters such as ‘berdump, berdump’ or ‘kerBAM, kerBAM’. Millett told me he didn’t want it to make an overblown statement. He went for the cleanest summation to the afternoon. Two blows from the butcher’s cleaver.
Before the concert, in the adjoining Richmond Room cafe area, electric string quartet Stringfever amazed and amused the gathering audience, ahead of their Connaught Theatre appearance on November 21. On November 20 (7.15pm), at The Denton will be the Sussex International Piano Competition audience prize winner in Interview Concert. It’s Jessica Zhu’s ‘Soiree of Preludes’ – Chopin’s Opus 28 and then 10 from Debussy’s two books, including the Sunken Cathedral.