Barbican Hall, London On BBC Radio 3 on Friday
However moved you are by Charles Hamilton Sorley’s poetry, you can’t visit his grave; his body was lost in the mud of Loos, in France, in 1915. He was 20, only just older than the most senior members of the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain, which lent extra poignancy to the performance of these 80-odd teenagers in All the Hills and Vales Along, James MacMillan’s new oratorio. A more intimate version of the work, a first world war memorial, was given last month at MacMillan’s Ayrshire festival the Cumnock Tryst. This was the premiere of his grandscale version, with the massed strings of the LSO conducted by Gianandrea Noseda.
MacMillan has written a practical, performable piece, and all to the good: not every choral society can muster Britten’s War Requiem. The strings support the tenor – here, as in Cumnock, Ian Bostridge, resonant and urgent, although on this occasion stretched at the extremes of pitch. Full brass power is saved for moments of greatest effect. The choral lines, put across with conviction by the London Symphony Chorus, are singable, the style easily digestible, the words set so as to be audible, even over the band – whose playing was first rate. But the restlessness of the tenor line in the final movement, set against a choral melody that flirts with both Bach’s Air on the G string and Elgar’s Nimrod, threatens to distract from the extraordinary text. Perhaps Sorley was not in Wilfred Owen’s league, but how many 20-year-olds in 1915 could have written such a mature verse as To Germany, blending realism and idealism in a vision of a future peace?
Few composers have had to be so aware of the gulf between the real and ideal worlds as Shostakovich, whose Symphony No 4 made for a heavy counterweight. Noseda drove the first movement hard, setting a pace for the string fugue that would undo a lesser orchestra, but the second was almost stubbornly measured. Notwithstanding one or two episodes of real character, there was ultimately a sense of the work’s peaks and troughs being flattened into routine brilliance.
Premiere fanfare … the National Youth Brass Band