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CD Review

Constant Lambert


  • Pomona (1927)
  • Tiresias (1950/51)
English Northern Philharmonia/David Lloyd-Jones
Hyperion CDA67049 74:02
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Young Pomona, weary Tiresias.

In the Twenties, Constant Lambert and William Walton competed to become the brightest of the Bright Young Things of British Music. Both seemed to share traits with the French composers who made up Les Six. Eventually, Benjamin Britten, by a much different route, had somewhat eclipsed both of them for that particular job. Walton to some extent moved beyond the Twenties penchant for glitter to occupy a position in British music somewhat similar to Barber in American: a deeply Romantic sensibility allied to a modern, strongly tonal, individual idiom. Compare the early Facade to his first symphony or even to the viola concerto, and you have a good idea of the distance Walton traveled. Lambert, on the other hand and despite one or two quite dark works in his catalogue, never really changed all that much. He was a master of the scintillating surface, the witty musical epigram, the surprising twist. He worked, in the main, "small," his extended works most often a collection of miniatures strung together. In his classic book on "modern" music, Music, Ho!, he complained about the lack of depth and the concentration on surface in Ravel, but the criticism has more point applied closer to home. There is, after all, nothing comparable to the deep humanity of Ma mère l'oye or L'enfant et les sortilèges or to the powerful evocation of national culture of Le Tombeau de Couperin or Daphnis et Chloé in Lambert's output.

Lambert's music shows a cosmopolitanism unusual in British composers of the period. His compositional sensibility lies fairly close to Stravinsky's neo-classicism, and, indeed, Lambert's ballet Pomona made it into the repertory of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, the first original full-length ballet by a British composer to do so. Indeed, Lord Berners's Triumph of Neptune was the only other British ballet accepted by Diaghilev himself. Lambert scored his biggest successes for film and ballet, and he wrote in both genres throughout his very short career. His association with ballet was particularly strong, serving as music director for the Sadler's Wells Ballet. Not counting arrangements of others' music, Lambert composed seven original ballets, out of a grand total of twenty extended works in his catalogue.

From 1927, Pomona, commissioned by Nijinska and choreographed by Ashton, tells of the love between the nymph Pomona and the god Vertumnus. The ballet story little more than an excuse for the usual dances, the music nevertheless lifts it to a loving pastoral vision. Unlike better-known Lambert works, one hears no jazz in it (Lambert was one of the early British admirers of Ellington). Here, the resemblance to neo-classical Stravinsky is strong, particularly in the quick passages of string writing, but something else remains, most noticeably in the slow movements. I can't think of anything else to call it but "English" – a smooth, cool surface restraining considerable hot blood beneath. In the "Passacaglia" movement especially, the music reminds us that Lambert studied with Vaughan Williams, without resorting to imitation or quote. This is young man's music – ardent, lyrical, witty (listen to the partial quote of Arne's "Rule Britainnia" in the finale), big-hearted, and even very pretty.

Tiresias, produced in 1951 (the year of Lambert's death), comes across as a much more complex affair. By this time, Lambert has sublimated his Stravinskian influences (although one can trace certain orchestral effects to Pétrouchka) and come up with something individual and, at the same time, problematic. A strong influence gives listeners an emotional reference point. The individual artist has a tougher row to hoe. The listener can no longer rely on emotion-convention linkages already established; he must discover them, almost as the composer has. In addition, the sections follow more organic paths, rather than well-defined dance periods. The beginnings and endings of sections are less distinct and tend to flow into one another. The psychologically darker nature of both music and story – including strong themes of sexual ambiguity – conspired with the gala nature of the première (in the presence of the Queen Mother, no less) to produce a commercial failure, although, to the credit of Covent Garden, it remained in the company's repertoire for five seasons and finally triumphed in New York, years after Lambert's death.

Lambert was a dying man – although he didn't know it – during its composition. He nevertheless knew he was sick and that he wouldn't make the première without help, so he enlisted his friends to carry out the orchestrations as he completed the sections. The sections arrived with Lambert's detailed instructions. Those who worked in this way included Searle, Rawsthorne, Lutyens, Jacob, and ApIvor. Nevertheless, the score sounds of a piece, and to date none has tried to advance themselves as the real begetter. I believe we get something very close to Lambert himself. I wouldn't make such a point of it, were it not for that much of the score's considerable power stems from its sound – characteristically low and somber, without the leavening of violins. For all that, however, the music is neither obscure nor murky. Lambert remained a composer of clear musical ideas, although the ideas did become more complex. He also writes music you want to move to – not just the fast sections, either. Particularly in the writing for the male dancers, one can visualize the athleticism of the steps. Nevertheless, the quiet, slow sections have a quirky rhythmic asymmetry I can easily imagine dancers would like to move to. Indeed, the score obviously comes from someone who knew the ballet world and its aesthetic very well. Despite its "too hip for the room" première, this should pose no problem at all for devotees of the ballets of Stravinsky and Prokofieff.

David Lloyd-Jones does well with Pomona, but Tiresias just slips through his fingers. Individual sections come off well, but the account as a whole lacks a strong narrative pull. I miss a sense of culmination, of the rhetorical watershed. The ending should come off as a regretful commentary on the climax. Too often, I get the sense that the music is merely played, rather than shaped. I admire Lloyd-Jones as a conductor (and as a scholar), and I wish I liked the performance more. Still, it remains in many ways an early performance, and the score is indeed enigmatic. Furthermore, the recording and CD production are Hyperion's usual first-class, and if you're a Lambert fan, no better recording currently exists.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz