ENDNOTES, February 2023

Ken Russell, Song of Summer; Christopher Gable as Eric Fenby, Max Adrian as Delius, credit Wikipedia

Endnotes, February 2023

In this edition: a new Piano Concerto by Nimrod Borenstein; the spiritual intensity of Herbert Howells; music for a Prince, all reviewed by Stuart Millson

The imposing name Nimrod Borenstein immediately caught our attention during this month’s rummage through the many CDs sent to The QR for review. A British-Israeli musician (born 1969), Borenstein is an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music and has amassed a catalogue of nearly one hundred works. His compositions are increasingly appearing in the repertoire of the Philharmonia, Royal, BBC and Oxford Philharmonic orchestras; they have already earned good notices at such international venues as the Salle Gaveau, Paris, and Carnegie Hall, New York.

Written in 2021 especially for international soloist, Clelia Iruzun, and premiered a year later in São Paulo, Brazil, Borenstein’s Piano Concerto has now been recorded for the SOMM label by its dedicatee, accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. Lasting nearly half an hour, this engrossing and exciting piece is grounded strongly in tonality ~ the composer commenting on how important the concerto form is for him; how vital it is to make the piano sound both “beautiful and complex”; and to place contrasts inside each movement, to avoid any trace of “monotony”.

Clelia Iruzun, who trained at the Rio de Janeiro School of Music and London’s Royal Academy of Music, attracted much favourable comment for her SOMM label recording (with conductor, Jac van Steen) of the Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No5, ‘The Egyptian’. She has brought the late-romantic flourish so necessary for such a masterpiece to Borenstein’s new Concerto ~ investing this work of today with all the characteristics and flourishes associated with the ‘old masters’. With so many modern composers eschewing traditional symphonic and concerto forms, we should be grateful for Borenstein’s championing of recognisable musical structures.

In his programme notes, Borenstein mentions ‘the big gestures’ of the first movement, and one is drawn into a personal, almost chamber-like conversation between soloist and orchestra. In the final movement, the virtuosic show of large-scale writing for piano and orchestra comes into its own, the composer preparing us for a sinister ‘Mephistophelian, seductive feel’ in an edgy waltz-like theme. Recorded at the venue of Henry Wood Hall, London, one hopes that Sir Henry’s Festival, the Proms ~ his great legacy ~ will find a half-an-hour slot for Nimrod Borenstein’s deeply-felt and exquisitely written and orchestrated concerto.

New from Chandos comes another dazzling John Wilson recording, featuring his handpicked super-orchestra, Sinfonia of London ~ a rebirth of that famous recording and film-score ensemble of half-a-century ago. This time, John Wilson leaves his brass, woodwind and percussion players at home, to concentrate entirely on English music for strings: Vaughan Williams’, Tallis Fantasia; Delius, Late Swallows; the acceleration and exhilaration of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro; and ~ new to this reviewer ~ the Concerto for String Orchestra by Herbert Howells (1892-1983). Dating from 1938, this substantial 28-minute, three-movement concerto puts one in mind of Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra, which was to come one year later, attaining an immediate place for Tippett at the very apex of the 20th-century English string repertoire. Howells, on the other hand, never achieved that front-rank position in inter-or post-war music, becoming associated instead with provincial music-making in Gloucestershire and the Three Choirs Festival, far away from the streams of continental and avant-grade music flowing strongly in our direction.

The tone of the concerto is pastoral; the imprint of visionary England ~ meadow, cathedral, ‘blue-remembered hills’ ~ giving the music a rooted radiance in the arresting, energetic strides of the first movement. The intense slow movement is informed by a slowly-enveloping sense of sorrow, a longing for a lost life, with a bitter farewell brimming through the glorious, poignant writing for the large body of string players. Memorialised here is Howells’s son, who died 0f polio at the age of nine years ~ an unimaginable loss which, perhaps, could only be adequately expressed in music. The Sinfonia give their very best and listeners will be stunned by the extreme softness, delicacy and lamentation which these superb players generate.

The shortest piece on the CD is Delius’s Late Swallows, originally part of his String Quartet and turned into a miniature in its own right by the composer’s faithful amanuensis, Eric Fenby. The music has a nostalgia and gentle lilt to it, creating an impression of a warm day on the very cusp of autumn ~ the time by which most swallows have left the rural lands of England and France. Delius, we should remember, lived in his later life at Grez-sur-Loing, an hour long train journey in the composer’s day.

Finally, more fresh air and memories of past times, this time from the light-music composer, Archibald Joyce (1873-1963). By the end of his life, Joyce the lover of waltzes and pieces for bandsmen on seaside piers, was firmly out of fashion. But a CD from the RTE Concert Orchestra and conductor, Andrew Penny, has brought the once-popular composer out of the dusty attics of discarded scores and old 78 rpm records, and into our living rooms. A rich, silky, euphonious air distinguishes the playing of Eire’s broadcasting orchestra, as we follow the South Downs Way on a bold Brighton Hike of 1946. A happy, flag-waving scene comes before us in the proud Prince of Wales Grand March of 1914; a feeling which may have faded soon after its composition. The ghosts of World War One and the upheavals of the inter-war world may well have dated Joyce, but nobody can deny his gift for melody and his love of country.

CD details:

Borenstein, Piano Concerto and other works for piano. RPO/Borenstein/Iruzun, SOMMCD 281.

Vaughan Williams, Howells, Delius, Elgar. Sinfonia of London/John Wilson. CHSA, 5291.

Archibald Joyce, light orchestral works. RTE Concert Orchestra/Penny. Naxos, 8.555218.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

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