The World Was Once All Miracle review – Anthony Burgess's musical powers

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Raymond Yiu’s song cycle built on the novelist’s poems and the European premiere of Burgess’s Symphony in C showcased another side to one of Manchester’s most famous sons

Manchester international festival this year marked the centenary of the birth of one of the city’s most famous writers with a concert rather than a literary event. But then, Anthony Burgess once claimed that he thought of himself primarily as a composer who had drifted into writing books. He began composing at school, and continued to do so right to the end of life. He left more than 250 scores, covering almost every genre; they include a violin concerto for Yehudi Menuhin and a musical about Houdini intended for Orson Welles, as well as several symphonies.

One of those works, Burgess’s Symphony in C, written in 1975, was performed for the first time in Europe in the BBC Philharmonic’s concert under Michael Francis. It was presented alongside the world premiere of The World Was Once All Miracle, a specially commissioned song cycle setting his words by Raymond Yiu, which was sung with his usual beauty of tone and immaculate attention to verbal detail by baritone Roderick Williams.

Yiu’s title comes from Burgess’s novel Earthly Powers, but the texts for his six songs are taken from the poem collection Revolutionary Sonnets. The song cycle is intended, Yiu says, as a portrait of the man himself, weaving in references to episodes in his life and his character. The third song evokes the sound of ceremonial music from Malaya, where Burgess lived in the 1950s and the last is an affectionate parody of a popular song from the 1920s, reflecting his love of Noël Coward and Cole Porter. It’s all done with Yiu’s typical light touch, but at times it seems he is so determined to illuminate Burgess’s personality as fully as possible that his own distinctive eclecticism recedes too far into the background.

Video: Raymond Yiu discusses his song cycle

Burgess’s own symphony, though, holds nothing back. It’s a sprawling four-movement affair very much following the classical model. It loses its way a couple of times but crowns the rowdy finale with a rather laconic setting for tenor and baritone (Williams joined by Robin Tritschler) of a passage from Love’s Labour’s Lost; one of the movement’s themes is a tune apparently written by Shakespeare himself for the play. There are echoes of between-the-wars British music, Vaughan Williams and Walton especially, but of Hindemith too. It’s perhaps not startling enough to create a clamour for lots more of Burgess’s music, but certainly worth hearing on its own terms in this anniversary year.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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