Music review: London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Mark Elder does Elgar without a hint of tweediness.

The Kingdom - Elgar
The Barbican, 30 January

If Elgar's great oratorio The Dream of Gerontius doesn't quite begin with a whimper, it's certainly not with a worldly bang either. The orchestral Introduction - radiant and delicately exploratory questioning from the strings - already seems to have bridged the heavenly divide, to have made the journey together with the "alleluia from earth to heaven". Saturated in Newman's Roman Catholicism, Gerontius is the stuff of air, a work from beyond the veil; The Kingdom, by contrast, is all emphatic earth - a work that can gaze and reach upward, but whose feet of clay root it perpetually in the human.

The verdict of history has been with heaven, but a few champions (Sir Adrian Boult loudest of all) have claimed The Kingdom's right to sit alongside Gerontius among England's choral masterworks. As a work of national character it is arguably the greater, trading the Wagnerian influences of Gerontius for a distinctive musical vernacular. Not two bars of the Prelude, with its yearning flourish of strings and brass, pass before we are securely in Albion. Every musical device colours more vividly the landscape - the transient world of "dustceawung" (contemplation of dust) that has shaped Englishness from Anglo-Saxon lyric verse through Lycidas and of course Gray's "Elegy".

The danger of so much national fervour is that it can all too easily feel dated - the death-throes of a moustachioed relic, grasping after faith in an age of atheism. Thanks to Mark Elder and the generous virtuosity of the London Symphony Orchestra however, there wasn't a tweed-clad or jingoistic moment to be found. Big orchestral gestures (matched by big-voiced soloists and the might of the London Symphony Chorus) gave Elgar's expansive work the space and sincerity it needed to escape the snare of kitsch.

Pacing - so essential if the oratorio's meandering narrative through the New Testament is not to pall - was swift, Elder's articulate advocacy manifesting itself in quality of sound rather than any lingering over climax or melody. The part-writing of The Kingdom is astonishing, prefiguring the Symphony No. 1 that Elgar was shortly to produce. Here, in the Barbican's rather close acoustic, it retained its textural clarity while still providing structural blocks of primary colour - colour gilded by the justly-celebrated LSO horn section.

With illness doing its usual winter worst, soprano Susan Gritton was a late stand-in for Cheryl Barker, whose chest-infection had also spread to Stuart Skelton - singing, but with no small struggle. It was an interesting substitution; while Gritton possesses a sheen at the top of the voice that Barker lacks, there is a groundedness and focus to Barker's tone that I did miss, particularly through the more sustained passages and duet of Part II. It was in "The sun goeth down" however that Gritton's vocal shading and spun pianissimo came into their own, matched for fretful loveliness by leader Tomo Keller's solo line.

In recent appearances at English National Opera, Iain Paterson's particular gift for expression has been submerged, and so it was a delight to hear him in the role of Peter, coaxing line and phrase into ever more delicate contortion. "Repent and be baptised", with its first sung iteration of the climactic "in the name of Jesus Christ" theme, would have defeated even the most disenfranchised of Englishmen. Despite Skelton's illness, the pairing of these two voices made a persuasive case for ENO's forthcoming Parsifal in which they will take the roles of Parsifal and Amfortas.

Conceived as a continuation of The Apostles, with the possibility of a third and final work still hovering in its themes, The Kingdom glances both forward and back. Any performance of worth retains this sense of contingency, of an utterance in a silent dialogue. It's grounds for many to discount the work, but in the hands of Elder and Boult it is reconceived, reworked as a symbol of earthly faith - a gesture never freshly begun, nor ever fully completed, but necessarily and potently unfinished.

GRANGER HISTORICAL PICTURE ARCHIVE
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The stuff of life: how A S Byatt intertwined the lives of William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

In Peacock & Vine, Byatt has turned works of art and their shade, texture, patina and heft into words.

How to evoke a colour in words? It is a task of daunting simplicity which A S Byatt attempts in her essay on the artist-designers William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. A Fortuny dress in pleated silk embellished with gold pomegranates is, she writes, “a colour somewhere between dark pink and pale red . . . a shining rose crossed with rust”. She adds, “no one reading what I have written will imagine the colour very well, or at all”. An adjacent photograph of the dress shows that “rose crossed with rust” is a fine description of its luscious and evasive colour – though it is also true that the words will conjure a slightly different tone in the mind of every reader, and none of those imagined russets will be exactly that of the dress.

Still, if anyone can turn words into shade, texture, patina, heft, it is Byatt. Her fictions swarm with physical objects of intense emotional potency and with characters whose lives they touch in strange and unexpected ways. Byatt herself, she writes in her introduction, has “always admired those whose lives and arts are indistinguishable from each other. And as I grow older I become more and more interested in craftsmen – glass-blowers, potters, makers of textiles.” Her own ancestors, she remarks, were Staffordshire potters.

On a first visit to the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Byatt found herself unexpectedly thinking about William Morris, whose work she knew well. “I was using Morris . . . to understand Fortuny. I was using Fortuny to reimagine Morris. Aquamarine, gold green. English meadows, Venetian canals.”

The two men were born four decades apart: Morris in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, to “a family with no aesthetic interests”, Fortuny in Granada in 1871, to an aristocratic family of artists and collectors. Each led a life of intense, multifarious ­creativity in surroundings where no distinction was made between domesticity and professional work. Morris designed houses, gardens, furniture, stained glass, tapestries, textiles, wallpaper, books and typefaces. Fortuny was a painter, photographer, theatre designer and inventor whose innovations included a system of electrical stage lighting that revolutionised the staging of Wagner’s operas.

Both he and Morris came late to textile design, but it is perhaps for this that each is now best known. In 1907, after reading a book by the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the Minoan palace at Knossos, Fortuny designed his first purely fashion creation, the Knossos scarf, incorporating Minoan imagery. In 1909 he patented his Delphos design for a pleated sheath dress in the Grecian style. The dresses were made of fine silk, dyed with vegetable dyes, hand-pleated using a technique that remains a mystery and held together with Murano glass beads. They turned the female body, of any size or shape, into a graceful column, and they were both elegant and extremely comfortable – though not, Byatt thinks, “sexy, either in 1910 or now”.

Fortuny saw his creations as works of art, and they were worn by women of highly evolved aesthetic sensibility: the dancer Isadora Duncan, the art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Byatt notes that Kay, the protagonist of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, was buried in a Fortuny dress. She was not the only fictional character to wear Fortuny: his designs are a potent presence in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Of all the dresses owned by the narrator’s lover, Albertine, a Fortuny in blue and gold, lined in Tiepolo pink, is her favourite; when she leaves him, she takes with her only a dark blue Fortuny cloak.

In his lifetime, Morris was almost better known for his writing than for his designs. His literary output was as prodigious as his craft: a book about his journeys to Iceland; News from Nowhere, a pastoral utopian fantasy; translations of Icelandic epics and of a 16th-century Venetian book on the art of dyeing; an epic poem, “The Earthly Paradise” (vastly popular in his lifetime, but now almost unreadable, Byatt says: “The rhythms hack and bang”); as well as books and essays on art and design.

Pattern, Morris wrote in his 1881 lecture “Some Hints on Pattern Designing”, must possess “beauty, imagination and order”. It is here, in the tension between imagination and order, that Byatt finds the connections between her heroes that illuminate the work of each. In chapters on motifs that both men loved – pomegranates and birds – she explores the multitudinous ways in which they used them; the exhilarating collisions of naturalism and abstraction, the audacious juxtapositions of simplicity and complexity.

In considering this, she considers, too, the acts of making and looking. Both of her subjects, she says, were “obsessive workers, endlessly inventive, endlessly rigorous, endlessly beautiful”. They acknowledged no separation between art and labour, but made their lives and their work a seamless continuum; and, through the beauty they created, invited us to do the same.

“It is always surprising,” Byatt writes, “how people don’t really look at things.” But she does, and in this brilliant and tenderly observant little book, with its elegant Gill typeface and handsome colour illustrations, she celebrates the fruits of making and looking: “the endlessness of what is there to be imagined and shaped”. 

Peacock & Vine by A S Byatt is published by Chatto & Windus, 183pp, £14.99

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt