lambertI still find it incredible that Summers Last Will and Testament is now readily available (through a 1992 Hyperion recording). This piece was like the lost grail to me for years. Written in the dark days of 1933 to 1935, it is a melancholic work, obsessed with death, loss and the passing of time. That wasn’t what the public expected from Constant Lambert, a composer best known for the jazz-tinged brightness of Façade and The Rio Grande. And the first performance, in January 1936, took place only nine days after the death of King Geroge V. It sank almost without trace. However, reports of its worth continued to circulate – from Malcolm Arnold, for instance, who called it “one of the undiscovered treasures of the English choral repertoire”. Lambert himself, who died in 1951, thought of it as his best work. Summers Last Will and Testament is based on Elizabethan dance forms, setting words from Thomas Nashe’s masque of the same name, the subject of which is London during the plague years. Lambert’s friend, the composer Peter Warlock/Philip Heseltine, may have inspired him to look back to the Tudor era for inspiration. Warlock had committed suicide in 1930, and Lambert dedicated his dark Concerto for Piano and Nine Instruments to Warlock.

In order to hear it I dug out the vocal score from the library – a massively oversized limited edition with two piano reduction. I visited the Institute of Recorded Sound (then in Kensington, near the Albert Hall) and listened to the 1965 BBC broadcast conducted by Malcolm Sargent, the music coming from the far distance somewhere beyond the coughing and shuffling of the audience. And eventually I saw two live performances, the first at the Brighton Festival (10 May 1986, conducted by Norman Del Mar) and then again in August 1991 at Leeds Town Hall, conducted by David Lloyd Jones. From that concert also came the Hyperion recording. I was almost sorry when it became better known – there was something exciting about being one of a very few who knew just how rich this music is. At 50 minutes long this is Lambert’s most ambitious work.

Intrata The work starts with a seven minute long section for orchestra alone, consisting of two parts: “pastorale” and “siciliana”. The mood is melancholy, but the pace and tension builds up until the expansive siciliana theme is introduced on solo oboe. Lambert has used the dotted 6/8 siciliana form before in his ballet scores (most notably in Pomona). Once again the music builds up to full orchestral treatment before returning at the end to the solo oboe. This is idealized pastoralism already tinged with sadness, preparing the mood for the darkness to come.

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