The Raven Ascending

Back in the days before online streaming, one of the first pieces of classical music I bought on CD was the Naxos recording of Telemann’s viola concerto. It’s a lovely Baroque work for an instrument that doesn’t get a huge amount of solo exposure.

Nonetheless, twenty years on, I still think there’s something strange about the sound of a solo viola. The middle-child of the string family doesn’t quite have the sweetness of the violin, nor the richness of the cello. There’s a certain inbetween-ness about it, a tone of adolescent awkwardness. But that itself can lend it an unusual poetic quality.

Holst’s Lyric Movement for viola and small orchestra was written in 1933. It was the year before the composer died, when he was frequently in hospital and (according to his daughter Imogen) keeping to a diet of milk. It would be tempting to link the thin-skimmed textures of this music to his weak state of health. But throughout his career, Holst often used an austere, pared-back approach, and this beautiful late work fits squarely within this tradition.

His tendency for remoteness and beguiling mystery is unmistakable here. Holst uses his forces sparingly, but to eerie effect. He hangs thin notes in the air – tendrils of mist, narrow slits of light.

Ambiguity reigns over a landscape of strange half-forms, where nothing is quite one thing or another, and the dusky strains of the viola could be its native tongue. We begin with a loose solo, which slowly rises until it reaches a rocking melodic figure, and then swoops down in an arpeggio. A flute answers, flying higher and falling further in a chain of thirds.

Is this melody, or diffuse impression? At first it’s unclear. A comparison might be to the violin acrobatics of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, but this is heavier, darker, more furtive. Perhaps we are closer to W.B. Yeats’s ‘ravens of unresting thought’ than George Meredith’s exultant songbird, glimpsed through broken branches.

A gathering of soft orchestral pitches condenses out of the air, and woodwinds take up the rocking figure. It sounds like familiar, English pastoral territory. But while the melody is trying for a lilting compound rhythm – a sort of Siciliana feel – it’s continually cut off by the 4/4 metre.

It’s as though we’re hearing something half-forgotten, not quite fully grasped. Then a stark chord interrupts, clashing with the melody. The music seizes up, as if in pain, a moment that recurs several times in the piece – it could be a traumatic memory.

As to where all this is leading, Holst keeps us guessing. We are denied any intuitive flow. The viola part pivots between gentle dance, sorrowful declamation, and scurrying scales. Melodic lines appear, only to dissolve into still notes. Shapes evaporate. Elements gather pace, and then peter out.

When at last the orchestra and soloist find an affirming major chord, it feels like a flash of longed-for sunlight. But the culmination that follows is the model of austerity.

In an adagio cadenza, the viola exorcises its demons alone. A tussle of double-stopping leads to a final reprisal of the rocking theme, both loud and slow. It’s a moment of intense concentration, and painstaking determination.

The struggle is cathartic, and the few remaining bars offer a faint but serene conclusion. The viola remains a strange, rare bird, but it seems at last that it has earned the right to sing with confidence.

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