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Hyperion Records

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On the Coast of Fife at Aberdour by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840)
Track(s) taken from CDH55461
Recording details: December 1995
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: September 1996
Total duration: 17 minutes 40 seconds

'Hyperion have once again triumphed in rescuing some inexplicably neglected Scottish music … it is simply unbelievable that the symphonic poems presented here have had to wait till now to be recorded … once again Martyn Brabbins procures superbly assured and crafted performances from the BBCSSO, and the recorded sound too is of the highest quality' (Gramophone)

'Ideal for lovers of late-Romantic music' (BBC Music Magazine)

Villon 'Symphonic Poem No 6'
first performed by the New Symphony Orchestra in March 1909; published by Schott in 1910

Allegro  [0'56]

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Villon was the last to be composed of the six symphonic poems. It was first performed by the New Symphony Orchestra in March 1909 and was published by Schott in 1910. François Villon (1431–1463), murderer, whore-monger, great poet and, with Rabelais, hero of the last of medieval consciousness; whose irreverence is so full of humanity that it has never required forgiveness, and whose mischievous joys are so mixed with eternal sorrows that it is impossible not to feel the deepest affection for him: ‘Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’ (‘But where are the snows of yesteryear?’)

Wallace, a caustic yet sympathetic observer of humanity, has created here a brilliant psychological, but deeply affecting portrait, based on carefully chosen and beautifully ordered quotations from Villon’s Grand Testament which are printed in the score. Himself a remarkable scholar, he has perfectly judged the self-pitying pleading of the opening: ‘Ung pouvre petit escollier qui fut nommé Françoys Villon’. We know we are being manipulated by the twists of these musical gestures, including their occasionally ironic largesse; and with jaunty interpolations, Wallace hints at the mischief to come: ‘Au moins sera de moy memoire tel qu’il est d’ung bon folastre’. The bassoon leads us off to the pub and the brothel (‘Où s’en va tout? Or escoute: Tout aux tavernes et aux filles’) but the consequences of this momentarily riotous behaviour are only disappointment and poverty again. The opening penurious phrase returns, this time more reflectively as Wallace draws us towards Villon’s immortal lines on mortality from the Ballade des Dames du Temps jadis: ‘Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’ At first the Ballade asks what has become of the great courtesans of the past, Flora and Thaïs, and the Queen of Burgundy who threw her discarded lovers, often students, into the Seine. Wallace evokes the nostalgic grandeur with richly orchestrated lyricism, and briefly we relive those days of beauty and passion, gaining from stately crotchet motion to expansive sensual folds of quavers. But the Ballade ends with France’s virgin martyr, Joan of Arc, as vulnerable to time as the rest of them: ‘Où sont-ils, où, Vierge souvraine?’ demands Villon.

Here Wallace performs a magical transformation. The material of lust, the flowing sensual folds of quavers, becomes simple medieval prayer for the Ballade que Villon feit à la requeste de sa mère pour prier Nôtre Dame. There is no mockery here. Wallace can be genuine, as could Villon in his reverence for the supreme virgin. It is this moving prayer which will briefly haunt the end of the work, but just now it has done its filial duty and we are off into the streets of Paris again and the chatter of its women: ‘Il n’est bon bec que de Paris’. But is is Wallace who cuts short the gossip with the grandest section of all, reserved for that moment when Villon applies all his regrets at the passing of time, not to other, but to himself:

Je plaings le temps de ma jeunesse,
Ouquel j’ay plus qu’autre galle,
Il ne s’en a pied alle,
N’a cheval; las! et comment donc?
Et ne m’a laisse quelque don.

Wallace celebrates the glorious folly of Villon’s expenditure of his youth with music rich and generous. But, as with Villon, so it must be with this work. There is a quixotic heart to it. There follows, quite unprepared, a little medieval dance for pipe and tabor. It is perfectly scored, its appealing simplicity as pleading and poverty-stricken as Villon, now stripped to the bone. The story of rags and riches is left only with echoes. The clock of the Sorbonne strikes the angelus:

Je ouyz la cloche de Sorbonne,
Qui toujours a neuf heures sonne
Le salut que l’Ange predit.

The prayer to the virgin is reduced to a brief line of penitence: ‘Où sont-ils, où, Vierge souvraine?’ There is no answer: only a hushed whisper from the bass clarinet and a wisp of a padded stick on a tamtam, scarcely audible, so that we do not even know when precisely is the moment of death.

from notes by John Purser İ 1996

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