Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Prom 43: Consider the lilies of the field . . .

I first came across Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi many years ago in a recording (it could well have been the only one around, though mine was second hand) by the University of Utah Chamber Choir and Utah Symphony Orchestra under Maurice Abravanel. Not one of the greatest orchestras, and it was an absolutely terrible recording technically, but I was fascinated by the music.

It was so different to the ‘Lark Ascending Vaughan Williams’ I’d been taught to despise, an artificial dogmatism that it took me years to overcome. I wasn’t confident enough then to withstand peer pressure; in fact, I still feel a bit twitchy about my current faves and pet hates, so I admit to covertly sneaking away from here sometimes to see if, somewhere, just one other proper professional reviewer might agree with me. There’s comfort even in the midst of a flock of vultures. . .But I never could seem to persuade other people to like it.*

And of course, I was young enough still to remember the guilty erotic frisson of reading, as a teenager, the Song of Solomon free of the ‘love for the church’ gloss that, like Vaughan Williams, I’d come to scorn and never found in the least plausible, though I must admit I think the foot fetishism of the epigraph to Part 6 of Flos Campi eluded me then.

I wonder if people don’t release themselves into the sensuality of it? Or even its sexuality, because in parts it really is: in this performance the chorus sounds near to an orgasm at one point, and the first section, which the oboe and viola share, creates an air of sexual longing that’s hard to beat.

I realise there are places (as when we have harp and chorus) that could easily be dismissed as sentimental, but that is not to be involved. Something tells me that to really grasp Flos Campi , to allow yourself to flow into it, you have to have had both gentle, loving erotic sex, and to have desperately missed having it. And I defy anyone not to sense spring petals opening and cheeks blooming in the ‘For lo, the winter is past’.

The chorus, in this piece, has to be heard as much as a part of the orchestra as any of the instrumental sections: more so, since the concentration is so much on that intensely sensual viola. (In the performance tonight it was only—I think rightly—”husky with passion” in part three. Elsewhere it was delicately sensual and longing.) Lawrence Power played it beautifully.

And then, of course, there is a gently jokey little piece of fake orientalism in the “Palanquin” processional; about the only place where you remember there is a whole orchestra here somewhere apart from the viola and the chorus.

And I can’t imagine that the penultimate section doesn’t really convey that “eyes across a crowded room” sensation to anybody. And the last moments of the viola fade in real tenderness and lovelorn-ness. Flos Campi is a love story, and, it's just dawned on me, a kind of virtual ballad sung only in sounds. Unusual in its form, it may be, but I still can’t see why it’s so easily dismissed.

Maybe it makes the English nervous? They’ve been brought up with all that subconscious Puritanism? I can’t persuade you? Try listening to it in the bath, with scented candles, a glass of something lightly fizzy and maybe a companion . . .

R3 relay

Prom 43: City of London Sinfonia, Lawrence Power (viola), BBC singers, Richard Hickox; Vaughan Williams: Flos Campi

*I can see from one dismissive
review by someone who is around the age now I was then, I’m still likely to find it difficult.

1 comment:

Mike said...

"It was so different to the ‘Lark Ascending Vaughan Williams’ I’d been taught to despise"

First, I'd like to say that it is truly dismal that anyone should be taught to despise so great a composer as Vaughan Williams. Such a thing reeks of the insecurity of small minds.

Having got that off my chest ;-), I'm really glad that you appreciated "Flos Campi". It is a unique masterpiece by RVW - it sounds like no other work I've ever heard and it has a deeply unsettling edge to it.

Longing, desire, passion - quite extraordinary - and as you say, Lawrence Power performed it so well.

I certainly don't dismiss it - and I'd recommend it to anyone.

As for Mr McHugh's general views on Vaughan Williams - I'll have a go at those once I work out how to post on his blog...