Review of Composers’ Platform WM SO/Venn performance

David J Brown

Review of Composers’ Platform WM SO : Venn performance - David J


The performance of Symphony No 3 did indeed take place as planned - sadly in an almost-empty Birmingham Town Hall. This was particularly regrettable because, given the colossal difficulty of the third symphony and the fact that they had only one rehearsal in which to prepare it, Paul Venn and his Symphony Orchestra of Composers’ Platform West Midlands made a very creditable attempt at coming to grips with the work in this, its first public performance. Indeed, I have heard the opinion expressed that their account was superior to that of Stanley Pope and the Philharmonia Orchestra in its BBC premiere of 1974. The CPWM is made up of first-class sight-readers, apparently drawn mainly from the defunct BBC Midlands Radio Orchestra, and their skill certainly showed, aided by our own John Pickard hurling himself from instrument to instrument as ‘12th man’ (not quite!) in the percussion section.

Only really extensive rehearsals would have given the performance the sense of real conviction that it needed; it took a while to recover from a really awful orchestral muddle in the very opening bars, and thereafter the impact of the first movement’s more lyrical and Romantic aspect was much diluted by the small string strength employed — only — far below what it should be both because of the extreme subdivisions of the strings’ scoring in certain passages, and because of the weight of brass, woodwind and percussion against which they are pitted.

The impact of the pianos, whose role is much more extensive in the first movement than elsewhere, was also muted due to their being set far back amongst the middle strings, rather than brought forward to give a quasi-concertante balance, as was the case when Ronald Stevenson and David Wilde played the parts at Maida Vale in 1974. Paul Venn took the piano-and-timpani cadenza at what seemed twice the speed of the first performance, and brought the first movement to a furiously abrupt and dramatic conclusion diminishing its sheer monumentality considerably.

The performance gained in conviction as it proceeded. The slow movement was, if anything. a little more spacious in effect than the earlier one, and the result was a gain. The scherzo, by contrast, set off at a furious lick, and the orchestra really grasped the chance to show what it could do with music which is at once brilliantly virtuosic and quite straightforward. Similarly, the strings obviously relished the lush ‘Viennese’ trio. The finale was again slower than its predecessor, and deprived (because of the expense) of the crowning sonority of the organ in its closing pages.

Even without this, though, the finale did crown the Symphony as it should. The players’ stamina held up remarkable well, considering its extreme demands and the fact that they had already played Bridge’s The sea (very finely) and Delius’s violin concerto (rather soporifically) — neither of them small pieces. We have still not heard Brian’s third symphony played with remotely the degree of intensity, conviction and panache that it demands, hut the CPWM’s performance was superior to quite a few others that his music has received, and we should be grateful.

NL 71 / © David J Brown 1987

Newsletter, NL 71, 1987