Opposites, supposedly, attract. I found myself reflecting on this idea during last night’s Three Choirs Festival concert at Gloucester Cathedral. The evening included many musical opposites, most but not all of them deliberately put there by the three featured composers. The manifestation of these opposites provoked a question regarding the extent to which the raw emotions that serve as the impetus for music can survive, or even transcend, the efforts made to capture and communicate them. Put simply: does music only attain emotional transparency and immediacy through an apparent lack – on the part of both composers and performers – of discernible effort?

Martyn Brabbins conducts at the Three Choirs Festival
© Michael Whitefoot

Take Stravinsky’s Firebird suite, a work that ostentatiously throws together complete opposites. For much of its duration, it occupies a balmy, impressionistic sound world. It invites us into a seemingly endless space of differently-hued lullaby lyricism; yet it turns on a dime, Stravinsky rudely hurling us from such sedate climes into music of such wild abandon one’s left breathless and disoriented. There’s enormous emotional potential in moments like this, a jarring shift that leaves one questioning what went before in light of what’s happening now. In ideal circumstances, Stravinsky’s opposites do, improbably, attract, yet the Philharmonia’s rendition of them, under Martin Brabbins’ direction, simply sounded well-drilled and efficient, even a touch analytical. For some conductors such an approach results in stunning lucidity, but here the effect was like a painting-by-numbers, lacking meaningful emotional heft. Effort had trounced emotion.

In Les Nuits d’été, Berlioz explores a different pair of opposites, optimism and melancholia. The shift between them isn’t as dramatic as in Firebird, yet it’s no less impactful. The positivity is placed at the start and end, somewhat fairy tale-esque book ends to what feels like the real heart of the work, the four inner movements, all draped in the darkest of veils. Although the Philharmonia at times sounded insufficient here – literally: that there weren’t enough players on stage – this was mitigated by Berlioz’s palpable restraint. Despite the intensity of the text, his approach is defiantly sombre and resigned, articulated with exquisite authenticity by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge. Her solo line was heard as not simply the primary element in the music, but the only element: Berlioz attains transparency by essentially having only a single expressive strand, the orchestra providing the most straightforward support and colouration. The performance sounded effortless, and as a consequence was heartbreakingly moving: one wanted to burst out crying simply to release some of the emotions Berlioz was keeping pent-up.

Martyn Brabbins and Kathryn Rudge
© Michael Whitefoot

Though it sat apart from the preceding works due to its abstract nature, Walton’s First Symphony also achieves its impact through a focus on single musical arguments. Each of its four movements has essentially one idea, with a minimum of digressions. Despite having to overcome the reverberant acoustic – which on occasions had made both the Stravinsky and Berlioz feel like hauntological objects emerging from the past – the way Brabbins identified and channelled Walton’s arguments was overwhelmingly effective. The opening movement became a cauldron of churning energy in which magic was being brewed (Brabbins’ baton briefly resembling a wand), almost intimidating in its protracted display of raw power. Though the orchestra sounded overstretched at times in the unstoppable Scherzo, they nonetheless revealed it to be a clear continuation of this seething energy, starting to be unleashed in unpredictable lightning bolts that kept crashing through its recurring melodic motif.

What they did in the slow movement is hard to put into words. It was as if the world had come to a stop. Brabbins managed to make its central idea sound suspended – transfixed by the enormity of its emotion – in the process making Walton’s plethora of sharp harmonic accents achingly painful. And here was the crux of that provocative opening question: almost nothing about the music sounded effortless or easy. As with much of Walton’s work, it seemed like the product of great struggle to find the best possible way to capture and articulate the magnitude of its subtext. Yet music has rarely sounded so completely transparent, every detail and element of its tragic trajectory immediate and very deeply affecting.

One doesn’t need to know the backstory of the work's composition process – the finale took three years and multiple failed attempts to be completed – to recognise that, as with the abrupt shifts in the Berlioz and Stravinsky, its last movement stands in almost total opposition to everything else. From introvert to extrovert: cheerful, ebullient, confident, assured, playful, even dancing. Where did that come from? Yet the way Brabbins and the Philharmonia let this fly with a sense of almost reckless élan served both to release – finally – all that energy from before, and to clarify it simply as the contrary emotional pole of the same musical mind. Its opposites didn’t merely attract, they fused.