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The fourth English Music Festival was launched here in the imposing setting of Dorchester Abbey, a dominant feature of the picture-postcard village that is Dorchester-on-Thames, an idyllic location (one pub, blissfully free of background music, has a ‘Chirpy Hour’ eccentrically lasting for two ... yes, we did sample the local brew!) that is quintessentially ‘England’ and the ideal place for celebrating the highways and byways of British music in a Festival (founded by the indefatigable Em Marshall) that helps to put pieces fallen from grace back on the map.
This opening concert (which is not to forget Anthony Williams’s free piano recital the evening before of music by Alan Rawsthorne, Lennox Berkeley and Howard Ferguson) was a generous affair, a satisfying mix of short and extended works, Hubert Parry’s setting of William Blake’s Jerusalem making a stirring opener, save that ‘setting’ is here a misnomer. No choir! A suggestion that the audience would be spontaneous choristers proved unfounded. What we had was Parry’s original orchestration (rather than Elgar’s) carrying his glorious soul-reaching melody, but Gavin Sutherland could have expanded this wonderful piece still further, especially in this generous (but not blurring) acoustic.
The bustle of William Alwyn’s Derby Day (1960, to William Frith’s painting) then followed, music both rigorous and expectant, with just a witty hint of Malcolm Arnold (specifically the suspensions of Beckus the Dandipratt, 1943) in the background. Quite why Roger Quilter withdrew his Serenade (1907) is to the innocent ear difficult to comprehend; it lasted just two performances and this Dorchester account was the first for 103 years! This is outdoor music, the first movement lyrical and tightly organised, the second, not least for the way the oboe is used, has a Delian imprint. The finale is less successful in its invention, less engaging, so maybe Quilter found this a weakness detrimental to the whole. Greater vision is contained in Shadow Dance from Havergal Brian’s opera The Tigers (1917–19), music of unsuspected harmonies and rhythms, nothing predictable, which is more than can be said of Montague Phillips’s Piano Concerto no.1 (1907), a perfectly pleasant, inoffensive piece that is the epitome of the ‘romantic piano concerto’ without establishing any real personality across its three movements. From Moscheles to Grieg, via Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, it was more a pleasure to hear David Owen Norris play the solo part with such easeful ability and without a hint of condescension.
After the interval, during which the perfect sunset aligned to a balmy summer breeze could be savoured in the grounds, the heart was touched by E.J. Moeran’s Lonely Waters, deeply felt, nostalgic and poignant music that is a first-cousin to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s (already composed) A Pastoral Symphony (amongst the very greatest music written at any time and in any place).
And then the surprise package of the evening, York Bowen’s Symphony no.1, composed in 1901, its first movement played that year at a concert in the Royal Academy of Music (where Londoner Bowen, 1884–1961, was a student) ... and on 28 May 2010 the symphony received what was probably its ‘world premiere by a fully professional symphony orchestra’! It was a pleasure to be present, for this three-movement piece proved beguiling, music innocent and confident, lyrical and ebullient, the slow movement graceful and balletic. As a reference to its style, it seems apt to mention the music of the Swedish composer Franz Berwald (1786–1868, two of whose symphonies, the E-flat and the Sinfonie singulière are masterpieces, and similarly were only first played long after their composer’s death and, indeed, after Bowen had composed his debut symphony) – there is a similar translucence in the sound and Bowen’s music is also light on its feet, elves and pixies at play at times. This ‘first performance’ was a good one; if, despite the BBC Concert Orchestra’s versatility and Sutherland’s sympathy, throughout the concert there were moments of unfamiliarity and uncertainty in the BBCCO’s response that another rehearsal may have benefited, but it scarcely mattered given the opportunity to hear these particular scores in this appropriate ambience and in the company of a dedicated audience.
Good news that Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic are recording Bowen 1 for Chandos; good too that BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting ‘the majority of this concert on Friday 18th June at 14.00’ (losing what though?), and the icing on the cake is that EMF is starting its own record label – that way it’s not just ‘the few’ that will be able to get to know the numerous hidden delights of British music but ‘the many’, maybe creating a world-wide-web of enthusiasts. The current English Music Festival runs until 31 May.
Colin Anderson · 28 May 2010
It may be unfashionable to celebrate anything exclusively English, but Em Marshall – founder and artistic director of the English Music Festival – clearly has no qualms, and for four years has been on a crusade to revive forgotten gems of the English music repertoire. Last Friday, in the decidedly English pastoral setting of Dorchester Abbey, the BBC Concert Orchestra launched the fourth festival with a concert that abounded with curiosities.
Among the shorter pieces, William Alwyn’s Derby Day, described in the programme as being full of ‘lively hustle and bustle’, at times seemed a bit too frantic and disjointed, and is perhaps a candidate for being mothballed again now we’ve had a chance to hear it. Ernest John Moeran’s folk-inspired Lonely Waters, though, was a delightful miniature, its lyrical, haunting melancholy vividly evoking the spirit of Norfolk.
A highlight of the first half was Roger Quilter’s three-movement Serenade, here being given its first public performance for just over 100 years. This, Quilter’s only extended work, is a glorious piece, and conductor Gavin Sutherland ensured a stirring, upbeat realisation of its richly melodic score. The joyful outer movements contrast finely with a sublime Andante, notable for an exquisite oboe line that is taken up later by the horns.
Passion and drama were very much to the fore in Montague Phillips’s Piano Concerto no.1, which was last performed in 1912. Soloist David Owen Norris was full of his customary energy and zeal, handling the extended cadenzas with power and authority, and finishing with a cheeky flourish. The most eagerly-anticipated piece, arguably, was York Bowen’s Symphony no.1, written in 1901 and never before performed in its entirety. This was another magnificent piece, which the BBC Concert Orchestra delivered with a fine appreciation of its lyricism and vitality, bringing the concert to a thrilling conclusion.
TURNING towards the subcontinent half a century later, in Savitri (1916) Gustav Holst wrote one of the most remarkable Indianinspired pieces in the whole of western classical music. Taking his story from the Mahabharata and producing his own English libretto after studying the Sanskrit original, Holst absorbed Hindu philosophy without descending into musical tourism.
There’s not a note that sounds pseudo-Indian, nor a note that could have been written by anyone other than Holst: semi-staged in the fading evening light at Oxfordshire’s Dorchester Abbey last Sunday, this short masterwork was a highlight of the fourth annual English Music Festival.
Lasting only half an hour, Savitri is an unusual opera of utmost economy. It begins with the unaccompanied voice of Death (bass- baritone David Wilson-Johnson, in potent yet lyrical voice as befits the here ultimately benign character) calling out for Savitri’s ailing husband, the woodcutter Satyavan. But Death is soon tricked by Savitri (soprano Janice Watson, an impassioned, soaring performance), and Satyavan (tenor Mark Chaundy, on ardent form) recovers.
The conductor George Vass shaped a mystical-sounding performance from just 12 players of the Orchestra Nova and a wordless female chorus drawn from the City of Canterbury Chamber Choir.
This year’s English Music Festival featured several belated world premières (violin sonatas by Arthur Bliss and Walford Davies, and the first symphony of York Bowen), and paired Savitri with the rarely heard incidental music to Hassan (1923) by Frederick Delius.
Written for a sumptuous production of the play by James Elroy Flecker, with choreography by Mikhail Fokine, the richly scored music is in a class above much other incidental music of the time – but incidental it remains. By the time we reached the final and fatally protracted ‘Road to Samarkand’ chorus, its charms had worn off.
The story of Hassan of Baghdad – a portly, middle-aged confectioner who unwisely becomes smitten with the voluptuous Yasmin - was sketched in here by a narrator, Paul Guinery. Vass drew attractive colour from his orchestra but was let down by the sometimes scrappy chorus: strangulation may have been rife in Hassan’s old city, but it didn’t sound quite right in the peaceful abbey setting.
The English Music Festival, which ran from May 27 to 30, takes place annually in Dorchester Abbey and selected nearby venues and specialises in giving little-known and rarely performed works a welcome airing.
Friday night’s celebration concert in Dorchester Abbey featured the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland and pianist David Owen Norris. It opened with one of the best-known settings of any English prose, Parry’s 1916 version of Jerusalem, followed by Alwyn’s overture Derby Day, the composer’s homage to the painting of the same name by William Frith.
Rarities among a satisfying range of superbly executed pieces included Roger Quilter’s Serenade (being performed for the first time since November 1907), and Montague Phillips’s Piano Concerto no.1 in F-sharp minor, which has not received a public performance for more than 95 years. In this performance, such was David Owen Norris’s empathy with the composer that the music at times displayed an almost ethereal quality, the soloist taking extended passages unaccompanied in both the central movement and the finale.
The climax of the evening came with York Bowen’s Symphony no.1 in G major, completed in early 1901 when Bowen was only 17 years old and still a student at the Royal Academy of Music. Musicologists have been unable to prove that Bowen’s First Symphony has ever been performed in its entirety, so this performance may well have been the world première of this charming and romantic work. As the symphony developed through its three movements it was hard to believe that we were not experiencing the work of a much older and more experienced composer, even though this symphony is acknowledged to demonstrate less technical achievement than his Second Symphony.
The programme notes recall that Sir Henry Wood described York Bowen as ‘a British composer who has never taken the position he deserves’, and this performance must have done something to redress the balance.
The English Music Festival, under the inspired leadership of its founder and artistic director Em Marshall, is surely doing all it can to ensure that English music takes the position it deserves in our cultural life, and long may it continue to do so.
The BBC plans to broadcast the majority of Friday’s concert on Radio 3 on Friday, June 18 at 2pm.
Founded in 2006 by its Artistic Director Em Marshall, the English Music Festival was conceived as a showcase for neglected English music of the early twentieth century, the golden period of the ‘English Renaissance’. Within four years it has rapidly established itself as one of the most enterprising and pioneering annual music festivals around.
Set in and around the quintessentially English, dreamily beautiful surroundings of Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire and its magnificent Norman abbey, the event has attracted some of the country’s finest musicians, including the BBC Concert Orchestra, Brian Kay, David Owen Norris, the Elysian Singers and actor Jeremy Irons, whose narration of Vaughan Williams’s rarely heard Oxford Elegy at the inaugural festival helped to put the event firmly on the musical map.
For this year’s festival, a brass band concert was a new, yet appropriate departure given the quality of the repertoire that exists for the medium during the ‘Golden Era’ – including works from Holst, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Howells and Ireland. It is sometimes easy to forget how lucky we are to have them. For Dave Lea and Jaguar (Coventry) Band, the event marked the culmination of a busy period of engagements and rehearsals, coming hot on the heels of the Grand Shield and the All England Masters the day before.
If the band’s performance at the Masters was jaded, however, there was certainly no loss of focus or concentration evident in the magnificent abbey as a demanding first half comprising the two Holst suites in E-flat and F and A Moorside Suite were combined with the towering Vaughan Williams Variations for Brass Band – a rarely heard masterpiece.
It set the scene for a programme that in many ways encapsulated all that the English Music Festival strives to promote. The sonorous strains of the Chaconne that opens Holst’s Suite no.1 in E-flat took on a glowing majesty in the Abbey, and although it took the band a little while to settle into the acoustic (it could hardly have been further removed from the extreme dryness experienced at Kettering’s Lighthouse Theatre) the closing March was taken at a sensible tempo that allowed the detail to be heard with surprising clarity.
In the Second Suite in F, the popularity of the closing Fantasia on the Dargason clearly struck a chord with the audience, but it was in the touching, folk-song-inspired slow movement ‘I'll Love my Love’ that the band came into their own: the surroundings an appropriate setting for some wonderfully lyrical playing.
Holst’s A Moorside Suite provided a touch of the bracing outdoors in its outer movements, with the opening Scherzo and final March recalling images of the composer’s walking holidays with his great friend Vaughan Williams. However, it was deeply affecting Nocturne, laced with a fine solo contribution from the band’s principal cornet Darren Lea, that left the most lingering impression.
Written late in his life and being used as the National Championship Finals test piece in 1957, Variations for Brass Band is a work that makes its fair share of demands, but this is music that is the product of a lifetime of experience from its creator. With its echoes of the Sea Symphony (something it shares with the Ninth Symphony, his last great symphonic utterance) and the score for Scot of the Antarctic, its variation form is masterfully constructed. Although a degree of finer detail was lost in the Abbey, Dave Lea’s intelligently constructed reading brought the score vividly to life.
The last time Jaguar (Coventry) played Granville Bantock’s The Frogs, it was in winning the National Championships First Section in 1995, then in the band’s former life as Rolls Royce (Coventry). Arguably it is not a work that shows Bantock at his best, yet amongst his brass works (which also include Orion and Prometheus Unbound) it remains his most enduring, with Dave Lea and the band making a strong case for its cause here.
The familiar strains of Vaughan Williams’s ever-popular English Folk Song Suite provided a lighter centre piece to the second half, before the band launched into a substantive performance of Percy Fletcher’s An Epic Symphony, to provide a fine climax to the concert. A finely wrought performance made the greatest impression on the ample audience, with its strongly Elgarian coloured language captured in majestic fashion. There were also bravura contributions from the band’s trombone section in the recitatives of the first movement, a delicate wistfulness provided by the horn section in the Elegy and a contrasting musical heroism on a grand scale in the Heroic March.
With choruses of vocal appreciation from the audience ringing around the abbey's generous acoustic, it would be difficult to imagine a more uplifting (or deserving) conclusion to a band concert than this.
With ample repertoire still to explore, the beginning of what one would hope to be a fruitful relationship between the Festival and brass bands in future years could well have been started with Jaguar’s fine contribution here.
For a Festival that deserves our support in putting British musical heritage to the fore, that relationship could just be a match made in heaven for all concerned.
Now into its fifth year, the English Music Festival is becoming well established as a forum for the neglected and forgotten. This concert [on Saturday 28 May] featured an unlikely selection of pieces drawn from a century and a quarter which covered a wide stylistic range, even though they failed to cohere into a logical or cohesive programme.
Delius’s Two Pieces for Small Orchestra was an understated way to begin, if not helped by an account of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring that placed the emphasis wholly on the melody line while leaving the inner parts to fend for themselves which, coupled with an overly slow tempo, made the piece a study in overt torpor rather than wistful awakening. Summer Night on the River is usually considered harder to bring off, yet it emerged much more positively here – John Andrews steering this sequence of subtle asides with a sure instinct for where the music was headed, and the [ESO] sounding more attentive in what is quite likely the finest among the composer’s shorter pieces.
Contrast in every sense with the incidental music that Britten wrote for a 1939 radio adaptation of T.H. White’s novel ‘The Sword in the Stone’. Adapted in 1983 by Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews so that its ten brief items are merged into a six-movement suite, this was another reminder of the liveliness of manner evident in the music of the composer’s ‘American period’; alternating between brusque fanfares and whimsical evocations, not forgetting some inventive and amusing side-swipes at Wagner, with a lightness of touch that can only have enhanced the subject – for all that its intrinsic worth today is undeniably ‘incidental’. Certainly the woodwind and brass of the ESO entered into its spirit with the required incisiveness.
James Rutherford (remembered for his sometimes-inspired Wotan in English National Opera’s often-erratic Ring cycle some years ago) then joined the orchestra for two very different works. Having spent the latter part of his career in Australia as director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, Edgar Bainton wrote An English Idyll for a concert that marked his departure from that institution in 1946 – since when this song-sequence has had only one other performance (in 1977). To be honest, its deserving of revival is debatable – not owing to Bainton’s attractive if texturally and rhythmically unvaried music, but through poems by Neville Cardus of a surprising (given his stature as a writer) ineptitude. Fortunate, perhaps, that only extracts were printed in the programme and that the resonance of Dorchester Abbey put paid to most of the remainder: Rutherford injected what expressive depth he could into the material, while Andrews tellingly paced the three movements so that a cumulative emotional charge was clinched by the music’s belated return to its opening idea.
For The Burning of the Leaves, John Pickard turned to a far superior poem of Laurence Binyon – one whose perspective on autumn as a metaphor for sweeping away past failings and present shortcomings is suffused with his characteristic fatalism. Pickard emphasises this in a setting whose initial emotional sweep is gradually transmuted into music of brooding intensity and resignation: any promise of change with the coming of spring is more than offset by the searching ambivalence at the close. While the text was not printed, the clarity both of Rutherford’s diction and Pickard’s resourceful orchestration enabled its sentiments to come through in full measure. Perhaps the composer might yet set the other four poems in this sequence?
After the interval, there was a rare hearing for the incidental music that Arthur Sullivan wrote for Henry Irving’s 1888 production of ‘The Scottish Play’. The Overture enjoyed no mean popularity even after the composer’s death: indeed, its effectively contrasted themes and canny hybrid between sonata movement and operatic prelude is worth an occasional hearing today had the generic status of the overture not sunk to an all-time low on concert programmes, and Andrews secured a lively and robust response from the ESO players. For the remainder, Sullivan’s preludes to each of the acts tend to focus on events immediately following rather than the longer-term dramatic expanse, but there is some apposite and evocative music even so. Paul Guinery provided linking material and summaries of each act in an animated and informal manner, while the (un-named) female singers who doubled as actors brought real ominousness to the witches’ contribution, dovetailing nimbly with Guinery in the dance and choruses of Act Four to complete an enjoyable, though inevitably piecemeal, conclusion to a varied evening.
As a long-time advocate for exploring and performing the highways and by-ways of English music I have only the greatest admiration for Ms Em Marshall and her team that organise the English Music Festival, now held annually, based around the beautiful Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire.
Most of the repertoire in each festival is permanently ignored by our professional orchestras and their chief funder, The English Arts Council. Why this should be is a mystery. The old complaint about such music not achieving sufficient ticket sales (why enjoy an Arts Council subsidy if not for the benefit of our national heritage?) simply does not stack up when most professional orchestras, now under mainly Russian maestros, perform Russian (often obscure) repertoire with the same level of ticket sales.
Enough, I say. Give Em Marshall her due, a gong and some funding. This is our music, for our pleasure, in our country.
This year the festival continued its penchant for world premières, both orchestral and instrumental. But before we dive in and discuss the merits of the Violin Sonata in A Major by Walford Davies et al. may we put matters into some perspective?
Everything is relative. The Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams (1909) was, for English music at least, astonishingly modern put against the giant of the age, Elgar. By the 1920s Vaughan Williams himself was being overtaken as the standard bearer of progress by such names as Bliss and Walton. They, in turn, were beginning to be displaced by Britten and Tippett in the 1930s. After the War, real modernism, in the form of serial music adherents, placed Britten into the coral of English conservatism (much to his chagrin). Today we can assess the merits, progress and prospects of this post-war movement, which was aided and abetted by several generations of BBC Radio Controllers. We can legitimately ask if there is a public appetite for Birtwistle? Likewise for Ferneyhough, Julian Anderson and Colin Matthews, to name but three more modern masters. I am not going to answer that question because it is deliberately contentious!
What I will say is that there has been an upswing of interest over the past 20 years for the English Romantic Movement (which we used to catagorise through Elgar, Vaughan Wiliams, Hoist, and Delius). Today heightened awareness of the size of this Movement has been achieved through imaginative record companies (Naxos, Dutton, Hyperion and Chandos being the major – but not only – names) releasing new recordings of an ever expanding catalogue of composers, whose names until very recently have been totally obscure to general music lovers.
Is this national (and international!) interest in music that is tuneful, lyrical, user-friendly and so on a response to the inability of the post-war modernist movement to satisfy the spiritual and philosophic demands of a huge number of ordinary music lovers? No, I promised not to go there!
Enter, among others, Em Marshall and her English Music Festival, the fourth of which I attended for all but the last day in May 2010. The choice of works played was very much from the first half of the 20th century. Britten was included up to his American period of the 1940s. Bliss, York Bowen and Brian had early works performed (in the case of the first two totally unrepresentative of their later achievements). Alwyn was probably the latest entrant with his Derby Day from 1960!
This choice, in fact, allowed the listener to receive a feast of vintage English Romantic Movement works by composers that are totally ignored by our professional orchestras throughout the country, apart from when they record the music!
The opening orchestral concert (broadcast by Radio 3 and given by an on-form BBC Concert Orchestra under the experienced Gavin Sutherland) set the tone with works by Parry (an unsung Jerusalem, a shame given the words were available), Alwyn, Quilter, Brian, Montague Phillips (his overtly Russian sounding Piano Concerto no.1 with David Owen Norris the suitably flamboyant soloist), Moeran and York Bowen, his astonishing First Symphony written at age 17 and displaying a fine knowledge of the orchestral music of Mendelssohn and Max Bruch (in 1901!).
Many concerts then followed, the first with interesting violin pieces by the 23-year-old Bliss (today the most grievously neglected of all the composers in this festival), a delectable sonata by Walford Davies and a somewhat astringent (or so it seemed in this company), mature sonata by York Bowen. It was played with not a little style and panache by Rupert Luck with Matthew Rickard, piano.
Next, at the fine new Music Hall at Radley School, Purcell got a look in with his Abdelazar Suite (taken by Britten for his Young Person’s Guide), a sad narrative for strings by Armstrong Gibbs, the lively and mercifully brief Capriol Suite by Warlock, a new piece A Gentle Music by the only living composer in the whole festival, Paul Carr, and Elgar’s solemn Elegy for Strings, all performed by the somewhat diminutive number of strings of the Orchestra of St Paul’s conducted by Ben Palmer.
Two choral concerts, one by the City of London Choir under Hilary Davan Wetton, the other the Elysian Singers under Sam Laughton, both in good voice, allowed us to hear the many delights of part writing from early 20th century (mainly minor) masters such as Wood, Stanford, Holst, Finzi, Elgar, Bridge, Howells, Bantock and Vaughan Williams. Britten’s inclusion merely showed what a dramatic change agent he became to English music even as a young man.
The Tippett String Quartet gave an exhilarating concert at Radley School, playing the surprise package of Richard Arnell’s Third String Quartet (another early work from his extensive output), showing him to be a natural communicator. Unlike, I am afraid, the worthy but dull Donald Tovey, whose Brahmsian Air and Variations managed to include two fugues in its interminable length. The concert ended with Britten’s early (again!) First Quartet which, with its quality of invention, placed the development of our national music up to that time (1941) into perspective.
By showcasing such an array of lesser known composers the festival pointed up one inescapable fact. All but the greatest composers from this period of our musical history (Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Delius and Holst) simply got stuck in the tramlines of a conservative idiom derived from early studies at our music colleges of, mainly, German music. Each composer may have arrived at a certain ‘English’ flavour in their maturity but none of them offered any real progression into an ‘unknown region’, of the kind we hear from our greatest composers.
The last concert I attended in the wonderful Dorchester Abbey, with the evening sun streaming through, touched the heart strings. Two genuine giants of English music, Delius and Holst, produced the real article namely a defined musical personality offering sustenance, interest and spiritual comfort. George Vass and the Orchestra Nova/City of Canterbury Chamber choir provided an object lesson of Delian authenticity, with exquisite and heartfelt beauty of tone in the incidental music to Hassan with narrator Paul Guinery.
This was followed by a rare outing for Holst’s opera Savitri with singers Janice Watson, Mark Chaundry and David Wilson-Johnson. What it made up in atmosphere it lost in detail; the words and the delicate accompaniment were obscured by the acoustic. But it is a simple (and short) story of love triumphing over death. Subdued throughout, in this religious setting, it seemed a precursor to Britten’s Church Parables.
In summary, Ms Marshall goes from strength to strength in her desire to bring music from the English Romantic Movement to our attention in live performances. Audiences were excellent in size and enthusiasm.
EDWARD CLARK · July / august 2010