ENDNOTES, July 2015
In this edition:
An orchestral world première and a recent chamber commission at this year’s English Music Festival * Transcriptions for strings from Meridian Records
Dorchester-on-Thames in rural Oxfordshire is home to the English Music Festival, now in its ninth year. The ancient Abbey, set back from the village high street, provides the main venue for what is currently a four-day event, a fascinating series of orchestral and choral concerts, and specialist recitals of rare chamber music. There is a sense of the Festival as a place of pilgrimage; and each May “from every shire’s end of England” come the many enthusiasts and followers of the English musical renaissance – eager to hear lost works by figures such as Havergal Brian, George Butterworth, and less-familiar pieces by the high-priests of our musical tradition, Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose Bucolic Suite featured in the BBC Concert Orchestra’s first-night programme.
As you enter Dorchester from the main road to Oxford, there is a glimpse of a famous local landscape, the Wittenham Clumps – a promontory above the course of the River Thames, and a view which the 20th-century artist Paul Nash regarded as spiritual, or even pagan inspiration. Nash said that the view here was of: “A beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten.” For amateur archaeologists, walkers, birdwatchers or just the weekend visitors with their guide books, Oxfordshire is known for its hill-forts and wooded ridges (such as Wittenham); and it seems as though the music played at Dorchester’s unique festival radiates from the very trees and soil of this soft, gentle countryside. It was certainly the case with Havergal Brian’s English Suite No.3 of 1919 – the second movement of which carried the atmospheric title: The Ancient Village. Conductor Martin Yates, a regular conductor now at Dorchester (and an indispensable one, considering the intensive scholarship and painstaking reconstruction of incomplete scores at which he excels) shaped a sense of a lost past from Brian’s romantic, but mysterious music. As dusk began to fall on that May evening, the listener could imagine the world of long ago: wood smoke rising into the ragged clouds, and the faint outlines of returning huntsmen on the nearby ridge.
One movement of the suite, inspired by a portrait of a rural labourer – The Stonebreaker – continued the mood of shadow and fantasy, but building to a noble crescendo, with the organ of Dorchester Abbey bringing a glimpse of Havergal Brian’s grand Gothic side into the evening. Just three years before the completion of those English impressions, another young composer, George Butterworth, was in the midst of a very different landscape: the terrible Western Front, which consumed a whole generation of young men – Butterworth among them. His death at the age of 31 symbolised the waste of the Great War; the flying bullets and shells making no distinction between factory worker or Eton scholar, mechanic or composer. Fortunately, threads of Butterworth’s music survived, and most listeners and concertgoers are familiar, at least, with his sunlit Banks of Green Willow. Darker and lonelier, though, is the orchestral rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad, and his settings (for baritone) of Housman’s poetry. The “new” Fantasia for Orchestra, completed and premièred by Martin Yates at this year’s Festival, belongs very much to the sound-world of the Shropshire Lad and those who would “die in their glory and never be old” – the score offering us, perhaps, a sense of what a Butterworth symphony might have sounded like. Not exactly an elegy, or a tone-poem with any discernible theme, the work nevertheless brought out a feeling of mild unease, but settling in the end into the sort of peace and calm which surrounds you at the end of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony – or in the sublime, mellow beauty of the second movement of Gerald Finzi’s Cello Concerto, the piece which concluded the concert.
Finzi – described by broadcaster and composer, Michael Berkeley, as an English version of Fauré – died in 1956 at the age of just 55. The extreme delicacy, and deeply-touching simplicity which are the hallmarks of the composer’s style are best known in his Eclogue for piano and orchestra, and Five Bagatelles, but the Cello Concerto is much larger and ambitious in its scale. World-renowned cellist, Raphael Wallfisch, received a warm welcome from the EMF audience, and did not disappoint a single soul that night in Dorchester Abbey in his commanding, all-involving, emotional performance of a work that emerged (to this reviewer, at least) as a worthy rival to the Elgar, Walton or even Dvorak concertos. It is no disrespect to Martin Yates to say that Wallfisch led the performance: he truly made the work his own.
But the evening began, not in the old, dead, tired world of World War One, but in “the New Age” of radical English composer, Richard Arnell: a man attracted to the New York of 1939, the city’s World Fair, and the flowering of purposeful modern music. If Havergal Brian and Butterworth gave us the England of winding lanes, Arnell gave us a thirst for the direct routes and fast speeds of the future. This was H.G. Wells distilled into musical form, and what a stirring, emphatic opening to the 2015 Festival – the BBC Concert Orchestra clearly relishing the dynamism and certainty of the music, which reminded me of the style of Arthur Bliss (composer of the film score of the classic Things to Come).
The Festival’s organiser and founder, Mrs. Em Marshall-Luck, must have been delighted by the quality of the musicianship, and the presence of a large, enthusiastic audience for what was a varied and off-the-beaten-track orchestral programme. The momentum established, Saturday morning at the Festival – a violin and piano recital – proved just as stimulating; with Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin) and his accompanist, Matthew Rickard, performing the G major sonata of 1915 (Gallipoli) by Australian-born composer, Frederick Kelly. A large-scale work, with many magnificent passages, it defies understanding as to why – for so long – audiences in this country (and elsewhere) have been deprived of such masterpieces. Rupert Marshall-Luck is undoubtedly the perfect artist for this repertoire: producing not just an immensely fine tone, but revealing much colour and subtle detail – and honouring the composer and everything for which the Festival stands by his immaculate presence, and clear liking for concert custom and formality.
The next work in his programme was a remarkable demonstration of how the English Music Festival is taking our artistic tradition forward – a repudiation of those critics who seem to make the mistake of viewing the EMF as something which only has an eye on the past. We must not forget that Havergal Brian, Cyril Scott and many others were the modern radicals of their day. Written with Rupert Marshall-Luck very much in mind, the Sonata for Violin and Piano, op. 130 by modern English composer, Stephen Matthews (b. 1960), was another very worthwhile discovery.
Here was a work which combined an insistent, contemporary sound-world (without in any way pandering to a pre-conceived avant-garde formula) with moments of mellow tonality, which mirror and perpetuate the traditions of our very finest pastoral composers of the bygone age. I must confess that the name of Stephen Matthews is new to me, but on the basis of this well-structured work which communicates itself strongly to an audience, I very much hope to be hearing more of this modern force for good. Finally, works by Alwyn and Sir Hubert Parry brought the morning music-making to an end. For me, it was time to bid farewell to Dorchester Abbey – and to the excellent inn just opposite, The George, the headquarters for many Festival-goers who value that other complementary English cultural tradition: the appreciation of real ale and civilised company.
From the musical landscapes of Wessex, to the Russia of Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov (and the Germany of Brahms) – courtesy of Meridian Records and their artists, the Isis Ensemble. Founded a decade ago, Isis is a professional chamber orchestra, achieving a strong reputation for adventurous programming; a policy which has resulted in this latest disc of string transcriptions of pieces such as Pictures at an Exhibition, which we tend to think of as belonging to the world of the full orchestra.
Arranged by conductor and composer Jacques Cohen, Mussorgsky’s gallery loses none of its colour, drama and well-drawn characters and scenes in this pared-down version. For the listeners who are familiar with Ravel’s orchestration, you might wonder how the Isis Ensemble manages to make up for the lack of snare-drums and breathless, virtuoso trumpet passages – not to mention the hypnotic atmosphere of the troubador by the old castle. But somehow, the panoply of the full orchestra is reproduced by the clever and exciting re-drawing of the score for strings. Rachmaninov’s Prelude, Op. 3, No.2 is also given a convincing and beautiful performance, as is the Brahms Sonata, Op. 120, No. 1, with Anna Hashimoto as the most impressive clarinet soloist. Listeners who relish the sound of a string orchestra – but a string band that achieves a wide sense of sonority – will cherish this well-engineered and satisfying disc.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review