ENDNOTES, June 2016
In this edition: world premieres at the Tenth English Music Festival * Dr. Leslie Jones reviews Mozart Explored, An Academy in Vienna, St John’s Smith Square, 26th May 2016
Some 30 years ago (readers of this column, will, I hope, forgive my nostalgia for the early to mid-1980s) BBC Radio 3 broadcast an evocative little programme – a musical journey along the River Thames, not from the source to the sea, but from London and Hampton Court, to Windsor Forest and on to the Oxfordshire of Faringdon and Lord Berners. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the English Music Festival, which is held at Dorchester on Thames, a village about ten miles south of Oxford; and I could not help but think back to that old Radio 3 sequence as I made my way to the main Friday night concert at Dorchester’s Saxon and mediaeval Abbey.
The Tudor music of Henry Vlll’s era formed part of that fondly-remembered 1985 radio programme, with Vaughan Williams’s cantata, In Windsor Forest conjuring the noble woodlands of Berkshire’s Royal district, not too far from the Thames-defined Oxfordshire border at Henley. How coincidental, then, that this year’s landmark Festival (Directed by Em Marshall-Luck) should take us to the England of the Tudors and first Elizabethans; to a spectral Windsor Forest, in the form of Vaughan Williams’s Falstaffian orchestral work, Fat Knight (sharing many similarities to the cantata mentioned a moment ago); and, from the source and spring of our musical tradition, into the present and future of English music, with works by contemporary composers, David Matthews and Daniel Gillingwater – to name but two.
Friday night’s performance (the 27th May) given by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Martin Yates, began with a Festival tradition: the audience standing to sing Jerusalem, in Sir Hubert Parry’s original version – a work which seemed perfect for what was a sublime May evening, with a golden sunlight falling on the Oxfordshire countryside and cloister gardens of the Abbey, and a definite sense of Festival enthusiasm and expectancy in the air. There then followed the music of two composers, both born in 1943: Paul Lewis (his light-at-heart and well-orchestrated Optimistic Overture) and David Matthews’s new Norfolk March (Op. 137) – a work, based on the lost Third Norfolk Rhapsody by Vaughan Williams, which – miraculously – Matthews re-imagined from a surviving, detailed programme description written in 1907. According to the composer, he fashioned an “approximation” to Vaughan Williams’s style, helped of course in great measure by the unchangeable folk-songs (John Raeburn, Ward the Pirate, The Lincolnshire Farmer) – which constitute the very language of the piece. But Matthews remains true to himself: refracting his material from a lost England, through a contemporary prism – Norfolk March even building to an atonal tumult, which might even find a place next to one of Benjamin Britten’s stormy moments from Peter Grimes.
The main work of the evening, though, was another Vaughan Williams semi-reconstruction, the Fat Knight, an orchestral suite in seven movements taken from the composer’s piano version of his 1920s’ opera, Sir John [Falstaff] in Love. Conductor Martin Yates, an expert in musical restoration, fashioned this “short score” version into a symphonic piece – the equivalent, perhaps, of a film buff colouring and completely rejuvenating a faded black-and-white film. Vaughan Williams, as we know from his life-long revisions and reworkings of material from The Pilgrim’s Progress, was keen to introduce audiences and performers to his music using differing, condensed versions, according to the needs of local or provincial musicians, or whatever resources might realistically be available.
For example, the cantata In Windsor Forest, is an extract (intended for choral societies) from Sir John in Love – where a ghostly atmosphere, evoked by spooky choral incantations, is very much to the fore. Interestingly, Martin Yates has taken this spectral moment – the owl-like sounds of the chorus – and rescored them for doleful trombone and deep woodwind; so the suite not only reproduces the piano version, but ushers in certain dramatic scenes for voices. He deserves the highest praise and recognition for this triumph in orchestration; and I have no hesitation in saying that the Fat Knight is one of the finest pieces of “forgotten” English music ever to have been performed at the English Music Festival. Would it be possible for the Festival and the BBC to co-issue this performance? If not, we can fall back on an equally fine performance, just recently recorded by Martin Yates on the Dutton label (CDLX7328), with another superb British ensemble, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
Saturday morning at Dorchester Abbey brought a change in tone, era and ensemble, with the appearance of The Queen’s Six – a group of brilliant young singers who usually work and perform their choral duties at St. George’s chapel within the walls of Windsor Castle. Making their journey to Dorchester on Thames, the Lay Clerks of the chapel brought with them the music of the time of Elizabeth l – madrigals and motets by Byrd, Tallis, Weelkes, Morley and Orlando Gibbons, the composers of what might be termed the first English musical renaissance. However, The Queen’s Six had one humorous surprise for us: a witty song all about those Tudor and Elizabethan luminaries, sung to the tune of the country folk-song Widecombe Fair – with its refrain of “Uncle Tom Cobley and all” rewritten as a tribute to the court and church composers of 400 years ago. But the concert began and ended in noble mood, with the singers paying tribute to Gloriana or “Good Queen Bess” in William Byrd’s, O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen – a haunting, slowly-unfolding unity of voices filling the great spaces of the ancient Dorchester Abbey. Our present sovereign, our longest-reigning monarch, was honoured with a softly-sung version of God Save the Queen: which, in the hands of this baritone, tenor, counter-tenor group, seemed more like a motet than a national anthem.
Other highlights included the intense, energetic, (and in places) Brahms-like Concerto for Violin and Cello by a contemporary of Elgar (but now almost completely forgotten) Percy Sherwood. Sherwood (1866-1939) was an Anglo-German composer, an absolute romantic, who began work on the first movement of his double concerto in Dresden in the October of 1907, completing his fantastic Allegro structure the following February. A gripping, exciting, almost over-ripe piece, the concerto can be likened to a painting that has been produced with the frame already on the canvas – the painter unable to contain his work within the four physical corners, the colours and broad brush-strokes splashing over each side. Violinist, Rupert Marshall-Luck (impeccable, as ever, in his concert style and dress) gave a deeply-committed account of this world premiere – with his colleague, cellist, Joseph Spooner achieving a “deep-brown” sonorous tone.
Accompanied by the English Symphony Orchestra under its charismatic conductor, John Andrews, no better way could have been paved for a revival of Sherwood’s music than this. Their concert began with a work very much in our own time, the Overture Ad Fontem (‘To the source’) by Daniel Gillingwater (born 1963). Thoughtful, well-constructed and very much belonging to the tuneful, tonal world of an older English tradition, Daniel’s composition bodes well for the future of our music. And just like his overture, the Festival as a whole (which also included such great talents as mezzo-soprano, Kathryn Rudge, and pianist and composer, David Owen Norris) took us to the source of our music: to the meadows and hill-forts of Oxfordshire, to the upper reaches of the Thames, and into the very heart of our national musical consciousness.
Mozart would have made an incisive music critic, judging from his scathing and dismissive comments about Muzio Clementi. This was merely one of the insights provided by apposite readings from Mozart’s letters in Mozart Explored; An Academy in Vienna.
The idea behind the series Mozart Explored was to re-enact selections from concerts which took place in 1783 in Vienna, in which Mozart participated either as a composer or by performing his own material. The fourth in the series drew on a pair of concerts given on 22nd and 23rd December 1783, to provide money for the widows and orphans of dead musicians. Ironically Mozart himself subsequently bequeathed large debts to his wife Constanze and his children when he died in 1791. Happily they were eventually paid off by memorial concerts featuring the late composer’s oeuvre.
It is always interesting to encounter music that one was hitherto unaware of. In this case it was Leopold Kozeluch’s accomplished Symphony in C major, P1:6, with its distinct moments of Sturm und Drang. Mozart himself provided his own nearly new Haffner Symphony (No. 35 in D, K385) for these Tonkünstler-Societät (benefit) concerts. The Mozart Players, ably conducted by Jaime Martin (formerly their principal flautist) did full justice to its dramatic and vigorous opening movement (Allegro con Spirito), with its noble theme; likewise to the moving second movement (Andante) somewhat reminiscent of the Andante in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 21 (the theme from the film Elvira Madigan) and also to the powerful and rhythmic 3rd Movement (Menuetto) and finale.
Haydn and Mozart were something of a mutual admiration society. The former famously told Mozart’s father Leopold, “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name…”.
As for Mozart’s view of Haydn, the aforementioned Leopold Kozeluch reportedly remarked concerning part of a new work by Haydn, “I would not have done that”. This drew a crushing riposte from Mozart, to wit, “Neither would I but do you know why? Because neither of us could have thought of anything so appropriate”. How fitting then that Haydn’s profound and vigorous overture to Il Ritorno di Tobia in C minor figured in this concert. We were reminded of Beethoven in certain passages.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni was an example of the 18th century musical genre drama giocoso, which combined comedy with tragedy. In her programme notes, Elizabeth Bolton makes a thoughtful observation about the exciting and powerful overture to Salieri’s two act drama giocoso, La scuola de’ gelosi (The School of Jealousy). In her judgement “it demonstrates the classical composer’s continuing evolution out of the Baroque era”. Indeed this entire concert could be said to illustrate this transition towards the Classical era. Mozart’s scintillating Piano Concerto No 13 in C (K415), performed on this occasion by Chopin specialist Janina Fialkowska, a sometime pupil of Arthur Rubenstein no less, provided a further example – éblouissant.
All in all, an enjoyable, varied and intellectually stimulating programme, performed with verve and enthusiasm by London Mozart Players, in the beautiful setting of St John’s, with its superb acoustic. But how sad that it was not better attended.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Dr Leslie Jones is the editor of The Quarterly Review
NB A recording of the Percy Sherwood concerto is currently planned. Subscribers are invited to support the new CD, and can do so by contacting Em and Rupert Marshall-Luck via: www.em-records.com
EM Records has also issued a new double-CD set of English Music Festival commissions (including a work by David Matthews), with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Gavin Sutherland and Owain Arwel Hughes