THE BIRMINGHAM FESTIVAL.
VISITORS to Birmingham last week cannot fail to have been struck, apart from the musical proceedings, by the remarkable facilities which the local authorities afforded to festival-goers. Indeed, the spectacle of a populace kept back by a strong force of police, and roped off to allow their betters to pass unmolested to the Town Hall or the Mayor's hospitable luncheons, was calculated to touch the heart of the hardest Tory, and failed not, to the writer's knowledge, to produce that effect in at least one instance. In no other city that we know of do we believe that the crowd would have submitted with such orderly resignation as in this, the reputed home of Radicalism. And yet such is the ingratitude of the Tory nature that we actually heard this discipline disparaged as being the result of Caucasian despotism, and affording proof of the fact that every Radical is at heart a flunkey.
While opinions differed as to the merits of the reconstituted orchestra, with its diminished string contingent, there could be but one feeling, and that of unqualified admiration, for the superb singing of the chorus throughout the week. Such a ren- dering as was given by them of the final movement of the " Choral Symphony," in the face of the enormous difficulties of the work, enhanced as they are by the present pitch, was nothing short of marvellous ; and while all divisions of the choir distinguished themselves, the soprani fairly carried off the palm by their brilliancy, endurance, and precision. We have little hesitation in saying that a finer all-round perform- ance of the most prodigious manifestation of Beethoven's genius was never heard in England than that conducted by Herr Richter on Friday morning, August 28th, 1885,—a day that should be marked with a red letter by all who were fortunate enough to attend the concert in question. The mention of the con- ductor's name naturally suggests a few remarks upon his services. The appointment of Herr Richter, who is known throughout the Continent as the greatest conductor of Wagner's music, while certainly unsurpassed, even if equalled, in his renderings of the compositions of the classical masters, excited a not unnatural anxiety in the hearts of those to whom Handelian oratorio represents the highest outcome of music, and provoked the adverse comments of those jealous patriots who, if they had their way, would inaugurate a system of musical protection. The result has been a most triumphant vindication of the large- minded policy of the Birmingham Festival Committee. By his amazing energy, his kindliness, his public spirit in throwing himself heart and soul into the direction of works with which he was known not to be entirely in sympathy, Herr Richter has con- quered much of this antagonism, and added to his great reputation. As an instance of his extraordinary ability, it will suffice to say that, although be had never heard a performance in public or private of the " Messiah " before he came to direct the rehearsals for the present performance, his study of the score was so complete as to enable him to interpret Handel's masterpiece in a manner as reverential as it was masterly. Most of the great artists engaged in the performances sustained, if they did not enhance, their well-earned reputations. Sefior Sarasate and Madame Albani must certainly be placed in the latter category. The Spanish violinist made a great step towards dispelling the prevalent belief that his claim to renown rested on mere florid execu- tion. Besides giving an exceedingly beautiful rendering of Mendelssohn's violin concerto, he played, also without notes, the arduous solo part in Mr. Mackenzie's fine concerto, composed for the occasion, and displayed at the rehearsals a faculty for taking infinite pains and an unwearied good nature which have added immensely to his professional popularity. In refinement of expression, in beauty of tone, and in certainty of intonation, Senor Sarasate is probably unequalled by any living violinist, the greater breadth of Joachim's style having of late years been neutralised by his excessive seriousness and a faultiness of intonation, which it is no longer heresy to lay to his charge. Of the merit of Madame Albani's performance throughout the Festival it would be difficult to speak with exaggeration. Every portion of the new work allotted to her had been so carefully thought out that in the rare cases where the vocal resources of the singer fell short, her intention and artistic con- ception disarmed criticism. One sole error in judgment to our mind marred the admirable achievements of this great artist, the introduction, namely, at a miscellaneous concert, of Handel's " Sweet Bird," a florid song with flute obligate which brought down the house, although expressly designed to expose the deficiencies of the singer's shake, which is neither " close" nor tuneful in her extreme register. And as the shakes constitute a chief feature of the piece, her otherwise fine rendering of it was not sufficient to redeem the failure. Of Mr. Santley's share in the work of the week it will be enough to say that it was marked by that fine fervour, finish, and dramatic incisiveness which reconcile us to a loss of volume and sonority hardly to be wondered at after so long and arduous a career. Mr. Lloyd was himself, which is equivalent to saying that he sang with the refinement and consistent excellence of an artist who has much to give and always gives it.
Among the new choral works produced, it is an open secret that Herr Richter—no incompetent judge—considered Dr. Stan- ford's oratorio, "The Three Holy Children," to be the finest, a verdict which was perhaps borne out by the splendid reception accorded to that work. And yet gratifying as this must be to the patriotic mind, we cannot for a moment believe that the broad choral and instrumental effects of the oratorio have any chance in the race for immortality against the freshness, the inspiration, and exquisite melody of Dvorak's "Spectre's Bride." This splendid and original work, written by commis- sion for the Festival, lays the latest emphasis upon Berlioz's declaration that Bohemia was the most musical country in the world. It is, indeed, something to be proud of, that by the practical recognition accorded to his genius by English Festival Committees and publishers, Dvorak will be enabled in future to devote himself exclusively to composition. One of the most pleasing episodes of the week was the modesty with which the composer sought to shift the credit of creation on to the shoulders of his interpreters, and, with deprecatory gestures, signified his indebtedness to Madame Albani, whose singing of the number, " 0, Virgin Mother," an air of extraordinary beauty, was, perhaps, the vocal event of the Festival. The absence of M. Gounod must be taken in some measure to ac- count for the comparative coldness of the reception of his new work, "Mors et Vita." Abounding as it does in graceful melody for soloists and chorus, this oratorio is too often tedious where it is meant to be impressive. Studied efforts after the awful, result in downright ugliness, so far as the orchestra is concerned ; and the interest awakened by the first section is in no way sustained, but leads to a long anti-climax. Mr. Cowen's contribution," The Sleeping Beauty," is a graceful and melodious work, but does not call for special mention; and the same, or rather the latter formula, applies to "Yuletide," the composition of Mr. Anderton, a local musician of repute. With a less feeble libretto, this writer would probably have done better, seeing that by far the best number of the work was inspired by the interpolation of a passage from -" Hamlet." " Yuletide " is a string of stories related by a company gathered on Christmas Eve, and includes the Icelandic version of the " Spectre's Bride," already mentioned. The analytical notes expounding the poem and its musical setting are of so remarkable a nature that we make no excuse for quoting a few specimens of what threatens to become a new branch of literature :—" Trembling with horror and dismay [thus the librettistl, From the horse the maiden fell."— The sorry condition of the hapless girl is next related, and with the self-same breath her marvellous escape by a beneficient (sic) intervention at a -supreme moment is tacked on to the phrase :—" Fainting : but in her fall she caught The rope of the lychgate belL" With the clang of the bell the spectre knight vanishes, and Gudrun remained alone, " Saved by the bell that rang out well, saved by the holy bell." On which the commentator adds :—" With the chronicling of the departure of the baffled visitant from the nether world, the key changes temporarily to A flat minor, and with the recital of Gudrun's safety sonorous chords for the wood-wind accompany the vocal formulation." The foregoing extracts illustrate, it is true, an advanced stage of analytical in-
eptitude; but even the notes contributed by so practised a hand as Mr. Bennett err on the side of over-technicality, and are calculated to repel, rather than assist, the lay reader. On the other hand, such a commentary as that on the" Choral Symphony," specially prepared by Sir George Grove, is a perfect model, full of interesting details, and instinct with an enthusiasm that never degenerates into gush. A brief mention of some of the features of the miscellaneous selections which concluded the programme of the first three evening concerts must suffice to conclude this imperfect notice. The enthusiasm awakened by Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody" (No.1) must have been trying to those critics who see in his bril- liant orchestration only a glorification of the music of the tea- garden. The character of Mr. Front's new symphony was in con- trast with the author's known preference for the advanced school of modern music; but was none the less welcome on that ac- count. Mrs. Hutchinson, as at the Worcester Festival last year, was conspicuous by her " Absence " (Berlioz), while Madame Trebelli, one of the last of the great Italian opera-singers, gave the familiar 12 Segreto in her own incomparable style. Mr. Maas was hardly at his best in Siegmund's song, but none the less deserves commendation for breaking new ground, if we are right in supposing this to have been his first Wagnerian venture.