Portsmouth Cathedral, Jan 26
It’s always useful when performers say a few words of introduction about the pieces they perform and James Gaughan was particularly good at that, beginning by pointing out their watery theme before I’d noticed its appropriateness in the ‘Cathedral of the Sea’.
David, on piano, began by conjuring the Rolling in foaming billows from Haydn’s Creation on the resident Bosendorfer with James’s baritone relaxing from imperious to pacific while Haydn flirted with some vestigial baroque stylings.
Being now deep into the big Elgar biography, I’m well placed to augment the background detail but I stick with James for Where the corals lie from Sea Pictures with a slightly sinister piano hinting at hidden dangers in the depths if not even some sort of death wish lurking in the ostensible comforts of the song.
Mahler’s dreamier Phantasie aus Don Juan involved a similar siren call to destruction although Schubert’s Die Forelle had at least more jollity on its surface but it was Schubert and so you can’t be too sure.
Elgar regarded Richard Strauss as the greatest living composer of their time and while James took a break before his second half, David played An einsamer Quelle, ‘by a lonely spring’, its water gently pouring, quite possibly catching the sunlight, as the right hand did the work of two, keeping the rhythmic motif going while providing the top notes, too.
Elgar had little regard for Charles Villiers Stanford, neither the music nor, it seems, the man and the feelings were at least partially reciprocated. Elgar was possibly doing something new and regarded Stanford as limited to tradition, anticipating in a way what was due to happen in literature and what was to be one way of seeing all C20th arts in a binary way of innovation vs. tradition. I dare say it was ever thus.
James and David brought them together now which they might not have been able to do in their lifetimes by giving Songs of the Sea, based on poems by that other unreconstructed dinosaur, Henry Newbolt, we might say if it were not for how well they stood up against those pieces in the first half by composers with greater reputations.
James was martial in rousing that old pirate, Francis Drake with a drumbeat if ever England needed him to defend them again; the lyrical longing of Outward Bound took him into a contrasting mood before being valiant again in Devon, O Devon and then back to the warm embers of Homeward Bound before the almost G&S test of enunciation and vocal dexterity in the powerful finish of The ‘Old Superb’. Some of us might want to take the implications of rousing patriotism as examples of period pieces by now but in Portsmouth it can still count as ‘heritage’.
It is often noticeable how much thought is put into the making of these programmes and the well-deserved encore was John Ireland’s setting of Masefield’s Sea Fever, another poet so wildly out of fashion that he must be due a revival, but the poems do little damage to the music and since this week it was such a nice day for a walk, I’m very glad I added this niche selection to my gloriously busy itinerary.