Emily Howard‘s Torus (2016) takes its name and procedures from that doughnut-shaped figure, and an imagined journeying around its surface. The composer explained this in an introductory speech from the platform, compete with hand gestures to show planes of travel. If that did not prove especially illuminating, the music suffered little, being easier to follow than the explanation. The work was commissioned as a concerto for orchestra by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, hence the instrumentation is in orchestral groups, especially strings, brass and percussion. The string music is slow, sustained, mainly consonant chords, a background to ferociously inventive and glittering interjections from the five percussionists (with added biscuit tin, proudly displayed before the performance at Martyn Brabbins’ request). 

Elena Urioste © Alessandra Tinozzi
Elena Urioste
© Alessandra Tinozzi

The brass have impressive chorale-like contributions but the string sonority seems immovable, perhaps representing the figure we are moving around. But over most of the work’s twenty minutes stasis was more the dominant mode than movement. But as Howard says in her note “the music is as much about absence as presence”. Certainly a piece with sounds intriguing enough to catch on the deferred broadcast, even though radio won’t help the composer’s explanatory gestures.

Meredith’s poem The Lark Ascending is kept alive nowadays mainly by the score of Ralph Vaughan Williams which it inspired. Perhaps the disappearing bird itself will soon need RVW’s lovely piece to help us recall, if not its song, the joy it once evoked. Elena Urioste’s marvellous playing gave us the poet's “silver chain of sound”, starting with the first truly quiet playing of the evening, so that we imagined a lark rising in the distance. She evoked too those avian sonic acrobats with a gleaming tone wedded to sure technique, every “chirrup, whistle, slur and shake” thrown off with bird-like spontaneity. There is more here than the fiddle’s onomatopoeia though, and the BBC strings, and in the bucolic middle section the winds, married their own wide-eyed wonder to this timeless English pastoral scene.

That scene was once derided as the “cowpat school”, but in his Fifth Symphony Vaughan Williams was more concerned with spiritual than rural matters, drawing upon his Bunyan opera The Pilgrim’s Progress. The BBC horns and strings caught the antique, timeless quality of the very opening, and Brabbins was a sure guide in all that followed as this rapturous music unfolded. No orchestra quite escapes the curse of the Barbican though, and its default dynamic of mezzoforte robbed the movement of some of its poetry. This is a quiet symphony, forte and above being rare markings. The single forte of the movement’s shining climax was pretty loud, though you could argue that the composer wants it both ways in adding “tutta forza”. And Brabbins prepared and led up to the moment with unerring musical judgment.

The Scherzo bubbled gently, catching nicely a curious sense of an English L’apprenti sorcier, mischievous but innocent. The great Romanza, which draws directly from the opera, was instrumentally a thing of wonder, the oboe, cor anglais, and flute each ecstatic – in the proper mystical sense – in their arabesques. This time the climax, once more after a long approach perfectly paced by Brabbins, glowed with visionary radiance. The finale’s passacaglia was sure-footed on its route to the quiet transcendence of its coda, and a glimpse of Bunyan’s Celestial City.

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