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For the Fallen

London Symphony Orchestra
Featuring: National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain; LSO Chorus
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Soloist: Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Barbican Hall
Sunday 4th November 2018

James MacMillan's 'All the hills and vales along' was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and the 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions. 

The work saw them link with the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain (who performed with focussed maturity), the LSO Chorus and tenor soloist Ian Bostridge for what was to be a most memorable performance.

Stark reality

The text drew on poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley, killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915, aged just 20.

Despite his youth, John Masefield and Robert Graves considered him a significant war poet in the way he challenged accepted thinking in respect to patriotism and heroism. There is no jingoism in his writing - just the stark reality of death and suffering.

After an introduction in which sustained strings were joined by the optimistic marching tunes from the band, the score developed its martial theme, albeit with a sardonic, increasingly bitter twist.

The band united with the chorus and a quartet of high strings for the slow, chilling chorale, 'When you see millions of the mouthless dead' - the movement ending with an exposed bugle call beautifully played on soprano cornet.

The poem 'Rooks' presented by the soloist with string accompaniment, echoed Britten and Pears, just as some of the choral writing reminded you of Parry and Elgar.

The band united with the chorus and a quartet of high strings for the slow, chilling chorale, 'When you see millions of the mouthless dead' - the movement ending with an exposed bugle call beautifully played on soprano cornet.

Chaos and fury

The tempo increased for 'A hundred thousand million mites we go', scored for tenor and strings, and which evoked the chaos and fury of battle, before the elemental forces come together for 'To Germany' - with writing that elicited a sense of harrowed optimism towards a peace that would come at the most terrible cost.

The work ended with sustained strings gradually dying away, punctuated by strong brass chords – fitting in its sombre reflection of what was thought to be the war to end all wars. 

After the emotional tension of MacMillan’s work, came the equally demanding Shostakovich 4th Symphony – written at a time when mercurial dictatorial musical taste could also lead to needless death.  

It was given a performance of intense drive and purpose - burnished, as with the MacMillan, with wonderful brass playing.

Peter Bale

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