The First Performance of a Britten Masterpiece, and is there a Sibelius Eighth?

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Wouldn’t it be a treat to be able to hear the actual first performance of a landmark work of the 20th century?  How valuable, for example, would a recording of the riotous 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring be – it would settle almost every conflicting eyewitness account.

Yet the sad fact is that there aren’t that many of them that were preserved.  Part of the problem is that many of the pieces that we regard today as absolute masterpieces were unveiled in the first half of the century when it was difficult to make live recordings. Also, lots of things often go wrong in the first performance, and composers and artists understandably preferred a more accurate studio recording to send their work off into the world.  So there isn’t much – and usually what is out there is illicitly recorded or salvaged from radio tapes.   Off the top of my head, I can cite Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress live from Venice 1951, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 with Kirill Kondrashin in Moscow in 1962 (before the Soviets made Yevgeny Yevtushenko change the text), Britten’s Cello Symphony, also in Moscow from 1964, Leonard Bernstein leading the first performance of Ives’s Symphony No. 2 in 1951 decades after its composition.  Close, but not quite, is Serge Koussevitzky’s rendering of Bartók’s Concerto For Orchestra nearly a month after he led the premiere (with its rarely-played original ending).  There are more, I’m sure, but not many more.

That is why I’m so buzzed that someone found a BBC tape of the very first performance of Britten’s War War Requiem TestamentRequiem, and it has been released on England’s archival Testament label for the first time this month, just in time for the Britten Centenary.  Meredith Davies is the conductor of the big ensembles, Britten himself leads the chamber orchestra (the Melos Ensemble), Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing the parts that were written expressly for them, and Heather Harper deputizes on short notice for Galina Vishnevskaya, who was prevented by hometown authorities (the Soviets again!) from traveling to England.

This is a terrific find, a genuine first performance of a major repertory work at an occasion – the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral May 30, 1962 – that has entered the lore of legend.  However, this is one of those first performances that demonstrate why there aren’t more first performances floating around. The  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is just a provincial outfit, not yet the superb instrument that Simon Rattle and his successors later commanded, and the CBSO Chorus is often not together.  There is one really mortifying passage in the Dies Irae where a confused trumpeter doesn’t come in for the first of a series of solos, and he plays the wrong solo in each succeeding passage, nearly throwing everyone off. The dim mono sound is listenable most of the way, yet it deteriorates alarmingly into a murky din in the concluding Libera Me section.

And yet … as rocky as this performance is, one can feel the genuine emotion from the occasion. We are part of the first audience, and with some imagination, you can imagine how jarring the violence in the score and the antiwar slant in Wilfred Owen’s poems must have been to someone living in 1962, with the ruins of the old cathedral next door triggering fresh World War II memories and the Cold War still simmering. You can hear it in Fischer-Dieskau’s voice; his rendition of “Strange Meeting” is heartbreaking. That’s what we’re looking for in first performances; the emotion of hearing a masterpiece for the first time, and sensing that the audience knows it is a masterpiece, too.

Another world premiere recording – almost, but not quite a first performance – appearsUnknown Sibelius as a squib near the end of “The Unknown Sibelius,” a single disc appendix to BIS’s painstaking attempt to record every playable note that Sibelius scribbled onto a piece of paper. In October 2011, the world’s music press was startled by the discovery of three fleeting fragments of orchestral music that turned up in the  National Library of Finland, dating approximately from the early 1930s – when Sibelius was supposed to have been working on his presumed-lost Eighth Symphony. Could these be sketches or fragments from that work?  While cagily printing the disclaimer that there is “no definitive evidence” that these are sketches from the legendary Eighth, BIS now lets us judge for ourselves, courtesy of Okko Kamu and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra – and I think there is something to the speculation.

The first fragment, only 1:19 in length, is the most striking, an intro not unlike that of the Seventh Symphony but going a little further into Sibelius’s late idiom – moody, inward, built on pedal points and unconventional scales – and it’s almost possible to guess where he could go from this start. The second, just an 18-second chip, is folksy, and the third (1:09) has Sibelius’s trademark wind writing and misterioso pizzicato strings (there is one more fragment, but that seems to be an orchestration of an 1895 piano piece). Supposedly there are many other manuscripts waiting to be deciphered, and who knows, maybe one day (perhaps in time for Sibelius’s 150th birthday in 2015?), we could have a reconstructed Eighth.