Friday, March 17, 2023
Barbican Hall, London
Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed
There have been quite a few film versions of the Anglo-Saxon epic myth Beowulf, a cinematic gift that keeps on giving with a ferocious dragon, a dashing hero, and lots of blood, teeth and talons. And now there is Iain Bell’s Beowulf for big orchestra, no-less-big chorus, tenor and a narrator.
Stuart Skelton was closely involved in this BBC commission but had to withdraw at short notice because he was unwell. Charles Styles stepped up to the mark, projecting a rather winning heroic vulnerability and defiance in music Skelton may well have taken more in his stride.
But as far as engagement with this magnum opus – fifty minutes – is concerned, that was about it. Bell’s style is tonal, sub-Wagnerian, massively scored, with a monolithic choral sound sometimes leavened by the sort of celestial rapture Holst used for the fade at the end of The Planets, generous overlays of percussion doing duty as colour, but on the evidence here Bell is not much of a tunesmith. But the main problem is the text – here a version by R. M. Liuzza – which mostly tells the story of Beowulf, Grendel the dragon, Grendel’s mum, much slaughter, gaping wounds, etc. So, you had Ruth Wilson, amplified but inaudible, narrating, Styles plus surtitles narrating, the BBC Symphony Chorus ditto – and it became wearing, if only because the unvaried, dense scoring didn’t really do much for the words. Beowulf’s death was about the only point when they got anywhere near hitting it off. Martyn Brabbins and his forces did this premiere proud, however.
From that to the sublime, Vaughan Williams’s Job: A Masque for Dancing, in a marvellous performance. Brabbins had a clear ear for how sure-footed Vaughan Williams was in this ballet score – he could draw a character with a few broad brushstrokes, he could write genuinely fast as well as slow music, he was a magnificent orchestrator, and his melodies always hit the spot. For the BBCSO players the music was like water to a thirsty person, with spellbinding, vivid, spacious and serene results. For which much thanks.
This concert is due for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday April 18 at 7.30 p.m.
This review will also appear on Classical Source