Bantock: Thalaba the Destroyer
Preludes to "The Song of Songs" and "Omar Khayyam
Camel Caravan from "Omar Khayyam"
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Bantock has been hit and miss for me. His "Celtic Symphony" and tone poem,
"The Witch of Atlas" are polished, individual and evocative. The "Hebridean
Symphony" begins in an inspired and compelling manner-with its pre-dawn
wisps of horn and violin melody floating over darkly adumbrative seas-but
when Bantock's morning mists burn off, the grand hull of the HMS Richard
Strauss suddenly looms uncomfortably close.
Derivation is fine as long as we're not reminded too much of old loves.
"Thalaba the Destroyer" was written in 1899 at which time Bantock had
conducted a series of all-Tchaikovsky concerts. Both conductor and audience
enjoyed quite an enthusiasm for the Russian at the time, and with "Thalaba,"
Bantock quite unapologetically tips his hat to him.
From the air-cleaving brass punctuations to the sizzling string tremolos, I
can sense an extraordinary commitment on the part of the RPO's members as
only a fellow musician can. Handley has always been a favorite of mine;
turning in performances that are both vivid and tight, yet never emotionally
undernourished. Zeinab's theme, (Thalaba's mother), is a wonderful extended
melody repeated with a counter-melody that creates some exquisite
suspensions. With Oneiza's music, (Thalaba's girlfriend), Bantock gives us
a fetching oboe melody over luminous strings. It's during the ensuing good
vs. evil battle music that one can hear most clearly that Bantock has
left Tchaikovsky atop the hill to bark orders down to the troops; but
still, unlike the stylistically piecemeal Hebridean Symphony, Thalaba the
Destroyer remains homogenous enough not to jar this listener's suspension
It's the other pieces-the preludes "Song of Songs" and "Omar Khayyam," the
"Camel Caravan," "Caristonia," and "Processional"-where I find my mind
wandering. IMHO the titles are more exotic than the music itself; and for
all the talk about Eastern exotisism the percussion section is used quite
traditionally-to cap a climax or to limn offbeats. Are my post-Edwardian
let-it-all-hang-out sensibilities not cutting Bantock enough slack? No.
It's not just the conservatism. Beecham wrote of Bantock's music as:
"...a flow of genial melody, unmistakably of the `stagey' sort, a solid but
lively handling of the orchestra, and a by no means too common capacity for
passing swiftly and easily from one contrasting mood to another."
To be sure, Bantock writes with taste, his orchestrations delight, and
emotions ebb and flow like the River of Life itself. But rivers carry with
them bits and pieces of upstream memories gained along the way, and rivers
eventually empty into something grander than themselves. Bantock's music
"passes swiftly...from one contrasting mood to another" alright, but I find
his particular brand of through-composition in these pieces ultimately
unsatisfying because I don't hear or even sense any overall unity or
development. Not even the hidden kind.
Certainly it's possible to create music that is both amorphous and unified,
(think of Delius' Irmelin Prelude, VW's "Fen County," or Schreker's
Intermezzo from "Der ferne Klang"), as these composers at least buffet
their clouds here and there with wisps of repeated melodic or
rhythmic motifs and discreet symphonic development. Even Sibelius savors his
spring water for a few moments before swallowing.
Without any development or reiteration, pieces like Bantock's "Caristiona"
can seem like a river of unrelated and inchoate preludes. Regarding the few
strophic sections to be found in the marches within "Camel Caravan" and the
"Processional," I found myself ironically *yearning* for more variation. My
thrill regarding Bantock's prodigious orchestral techniques
aside--when splashed by his occasional grand gestures or when riding the
falls into his climactic seas, I sometimes find little to hold on to.
If you don't have any Bantock, I would recommend trying out an earlier
Hyperion release featuring the uneven but ultimately satisfying Hebridian
Symphony. IMHO the fillers, (including the Celtic Symphony), are much more
successful than those included with
"Thalaba the Destroyer."