4 February 2019

Bax Tintagel
Britten Violin Concerto
Walton Symphony No. 1
Monday 4 February 2019, 7:30pm
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Michael Seal, conductor
Zoë Beyers, violin

To reserve tickets
Phone: 0844 847 9910
Southbankcentre.co.uk

CCO is delighted to return to the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall with Michael Seal to perform some of the greatest modern works in the English symphonic repertoire.  Beginning with Arnold Bax’s evocative symphonic poem Tintagel, inspired by Tintagel Castle and the rugged coast of North Cornwall.  We are excited to welcome back Zoë Beyers to perform Britten’s haunting Violin Concerto.   The concert concludes with Walton’s imperious First Symphony.  

Love, romance, frustration, Cornish cliffs and the sun glinting on the sea – just some of the things you can hear in CCO’s next concert. Conductor Michael Seal answers some questions about the repertoire

How does Walton’s Symphony No. 1 relate to his personal life, and what do we hear in the music?

The symphony is dedicated to Baroness Imma Doernberg, who – for at least the first three movements – had a direct influence on the music, in my opinion. As he was writing the first movement, she wrote a letter to him breaking off their relationship. They did reconcile yet apparently it took some months for things to get back to where they had been and you can hear the frustration, anger and bitterness in the first two movements.

However, he really was in love with her and I think you can hear that very definitely in the slow movement. It starts on the note C sharp but its opening melody on the flute begins on a D, clashing against the C sharp. The movement frequently has this clash (with sometimes three or more notes clashing) and yet eventually, after what seems like a real struggle to break away, the movement ends back on the C sharp again. It is a depiction of someone trying to accept life without their partner, but simply unable to.

Walton struggled to write the Finale, apparently burning three different attempts. The symphony was premiered in 1934 with only three movements completed and the Finale still stalled. His new liaison with Alice Wimbourne in early 1935 was the kickstart the Finale needed and you can hear this. The music is much more buoyant, strident and – dare I say – happy? Some criticise the Finale for being too different from the rest of the symphony, but for me it shows that life has moved on and that emotions can be so different across the conception of a work. For me, it is the perfect finale – a real happy ending.

How does the symphony compare with other works by Walton?

It has common elements to his other early works, being very rhythmic, almost jazzy at times. It also has the bittersweet harmonic quality of those other early works and it sets out to make a bold statement. When he wrote to someone telling them of the commission he had received to write a symphony, he said, ‘I may be able to knock Bax off the map.’ Given the number of performances of this symphony compared to all Bax’s seven symphonies since then, I think he managed it!

What are the challenges of performing the symphony?

The symphony is very challenging to perform indeed! Firstly, it is extremely tiring – the players must pace themselves. The first movement is so full-on that one can easily get to the end of it and feel drained. You have to find places to relax while always giving your all when it is needed. Secondly, Walton’s writing for most instruments can be rather awkward – many orchestral players find the writing can be a real technical challenge. Couple those things together and you get a really challenging piece to play!

Do you have any funny stories about conducting it?

In 2006, I conducted it live on BBC Radio 3 with the CBSO, and at one point, I gave such a big and flourishing gesture that my right foot swung backwards and kicked the railing behind me on the Symphony Hall podium. You could clearly hear what sounded like an anvil or tubular bell on the downbeat of bar 209 of the Finale!

How does the Britten Violin Concerto compare with famous Romantic violin concertos?

In many ways, it is as we would expect: a three-movement concerto with a cadenza. Where it differs is the cadenza is between the second and third movements and that the Finale is a Passacaglia (one of Britten’s favourite structural forms). You can still expect beautiful romantic melodies and, for me, one of the greatest endings in all music.

What are the challenges for the soloist?

The second movement is extremely challenging: fast and rhythmic while full of double-stops of thirds, sixths, octaves, tenths and harmonics. In the Coda of the Finale, it even contains a passage of double-stopped unison notes, which I am not sure had ever been used before.

How does Bax’s Tintagel relate the castle in Cornwall?

Bax said that there was no specific programme, yet it was “intended to evoke a tone-picture of the castle-crowned cliff of Tintagel, and more particularly of the Atlantic as seen from the cliffs of Cornwall on a sunny but not windless day”. One can hear that from the start, the gently undulating strings, with the flutes hinting at the sun glinting on the water. It becomes more stormy in the middle of the work and Bax said that we might imagine more of the historical and legendary elements – King Arthur, King Mark – but ultimately that view of the sea and the beauty of the place are the abiding memories.

Bax’s music has come back into fashion recently – why do you think we should listen to his work?

Quite a few English composers from this era have been neglected and are starting to have a renaissance. The reasons for their music being neglected are many, but what is not in doubt is that much of the music written by Arnold Bax, York Bowen, Granville Bantock and the like is worthy of being rediscovered and heard. The British musical life in the first half of the 20th century was rich and diverse yet we seem to concentrate on only a handful of composers and everything they wrote yet not all of it is good. I count Britten and Walton among my favourite composers, but I would not say they got it right all of the time, yet we disregard some other composers for very similar reasons. I am a great believer that masterpieces will rise to the surface if given a chance, and some of the works by Bax, for example, have not been played enough for us to give them the chance they deserve.