ENDNOTES, July 2021
In this edition: Blissful sonatas at the English Music Festival; contemporary organ music from the United States, reviewed by Stuart Millson
Classical music has endured a turbulent time during the last year. The depredations of the Covid crisis, the loss of cultural self-confidence in the West – which has resulted in institutions such as the Royal Academy of Music* examining ways to “decolonise” (i.e. make less European) the art-form that constitutes its very raison d’etre – have all inflicted lasting damage. Even those, such as English Music Festival Director, Em Marshall-Luck, who continue – against all the odds – to run concerts and make recordings during this time of near-paralysis, provide us with stark warnings. For example, in her introduction to this year’s Festival programme, Em tells us the stark reality now before us:
‘A survey** conducted last year revealed that, as a result of the impact of COVID-19 and event cancellations, 64% of musicians are considering leaving the profession permanently. The irrevocable loss of so many talented artists will inevitably result in a significant contraction of the UK music industry, so we need to do all we can to keep concerts going as much as possible, to succour our artists and prevent any more such loss.’
But the English Music Festival has kept the faith; stepping forward under difficult conditions to provide at least some measure of the concertgoing life we once knew. Usually held in the grand setting of Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, with such ensembles present as the BBC Concert and English Symphony orchestras, this year’s EMF took place in the smaller (but still impressive) setting of St. Mary’s Church, Horsham, Sussex; with mainly chamber-sized concerts and recitals – with, we are happy to report, many musicians drawn from a younger generation – and giving every impression that they are committed to their profession and vocation.
One of the most significant concerts of the Festival weekend was the Saturday morning slot: a truly ambitious and for the musicians, physically demanding programme, devoted to interpretations of four substantial sonatas by Sir Arthur Bliss, Herbert Howells, John Ireland and Frederick Delius. In the hands of violinist, Rupert Marshall-Luck and pianist, Duncan Honeybourne, these four sonatas emerged, not as rare items of English esoterica, but magnificent, potent indicators of the strength and depth of 20th-century English music. Take, for example, the Bliss sonata – the shortest in duration of the three: here is an early work by the composer that belongs in the same vein as, say, the Walton Viola Concerto of the late-1920s– a decidedly modern form of English classicism; suffused with – in its opening – a passionate, yet restrained melancholia – building, as Rupert Marshall-Luck so eloquently put it in his programme note, into “red-blooded, long-lined, finely-arched themes” – “opulent never intrusive”.
The spans of the music were, indeed, crafted in loving style by Mr. Marshall-Luck – the mood of longing throughout the piece having a serious and determined edge – except when we arrived at a dramatic gear-change, about five or six minutes into the piece: here Duncan Honeybourne came to the fore, bringing to life a sparkling, eddying, Debussy-like feel; the step where the music climbs to a plateau – before exhaling and relaxing in the sunshine. Fortunately, we can re-live this experience, in the form of an EM Records CD of the sonata – a disc which marks the first-ever recording of the work, although in the production, the pioneering pianist is Matthew Rickard – a player every bit as fine as Duncan Honeybourne. And in the Horsham concert, there was even more for Mr. Honeybourne to do: the world premiere performance of the Variations and Fugue in B minor by Royal College of Music-educated Edgar Bainton (1880-1956) – written at the end of the 19th-century and existing in many ways as a tribute to the inspiration of Brahms, but more obviously, Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. With Duncan Honeybourne – a performer who puts so much physical power into his playing – we always seem to stride out on a great journey – and here was a performance of another work of English music lost by the wayside, and yet brimming with beautiful phrases as one theme led to another; making so many of us in the audience wonder why this glorious sequence has had to wait so long for an outing in the concert hall.
Two traditional tunes from the British Isles feature on a new CD from the Divine Art label, devoted to the works of American contemporary composer (and composer-in-residence at Harvard University), Carson Cooman (born 1982). Mr. Cooman is a composer keen to realise the potential of the internet in spreading his message, with thousands of his compositions available via the worldwide web – a recognition, perhaps, that in a not-so-far-away-future, where our way of living and working is so different, such technology might possibly become an alternative to the concert hall. The ‘2 from the British Isles’ (as they appear in the track listing) are the Welsh tune, Hyfrydol – nostalgic and full of “hiraeth”, or longing; and Kingsfold – perhaps better known as the hymn-tune, I heard the voice of Jesus say – or the great theme in Vaughan Williams’s Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus.
Devotees of the organ will relish the rich tones of Cooman’s St. Michael Antiphonies, the St. Patrick Silhouette, and his Autumn Sketches. Here is a modern voice, rooted in the past but with hope in the future.
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
*The Times, 19th June 2021
** Survey by the musician-booking service, Encore Musicians
Bliss, Violin Sonata, Rupert Marshall-Luck, Matthew Rickard, EMR CD001.
Carson Cooman, Antiphonies, performed by Erik Simmons, Divine Art label, DDA25218.