ENDNOTES, June 2018
In this edition: a world première at the English Music Festival; preview of the 2018 Welsh Proms.
For those of us driving from the South East, via Wokingham and Henley, the road to Dorchester-on-Thames (home of the English Music Festival) takes in some of England’s most beautiful scenery – a route which, in late May, is garlanded in white by roadside Queen Anne lace and the full canopy of green on the stately tree-lined road out of Henley. The town’s bridge marks the border with Oxfordshire, and from then on, a rolling landscape – with hints of an ancient past (Iron Age hill-forts, Saxon churches) – unfolds. Wallingford, with its associations of King Alfred, soon comes into view; and a few miles on, the famous Wittenham Clumps – a wooded ridge (memorialised by the 20th century artist, Paul Nash) looks down upon Dorchester, whose ancient Abbey is the main concert venue for the English Music Festival.
The visitor is, therefore, immediately put into the right frame of mind for a weekend of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bliss, Elgar and Peter Warlock. But for the Festival’s founder, Em Marshall-Luck, English music does not begin and end with these famous names: instead, the equivalent of an archaeological dig has been initiated, one which has brought to light lost or rare masterpieces; and a host of composers – such as Sir George Dyson, Sterndale Bennett, Ethel Smyth, Arwel Hughes, Ivor Gurney – who have suffered years of neglect in our country’s concert programmes.
The opening night of the Festival saw the Worcestershire-based English Symphony Orchestra take to the platform, under the baton of their brilliant young conductor, John Andrews – and it was Delius’s Double Concerto from 1915 (with Rupert Marshall-Luck, violin, and Joseph Spooner, cello) which provided that rare gem from the golden age of the English musical renascence. With its opening, reminiscent of the composer’s own delicate tone-poem In a Summer Garden, the concerto flowed like a summer stream: the violin soon entering after the soft orchestral introduction, the cello – answering in kind, and the two instruments weaving a glorious pattern throughout the piece’s dream-like span. Yet the concerto does offer a surprise: with brass announcing a short march-like section – an echo of Delius’s North Country Sketches – in which we follow not a brass band, or anything militaristic, but perhaps a country procession, or even the rural god, Pan. The soloists treated every note of the work with reverence and joy: Rupert Marshall-Luck pitching each nostalgic note of Delius into the warm acoustic of Dorchester Abbey; Joseph Spooner at the cello, creating that deep, mysterious, strange atmosphere of dreams and sunshine, which exists at the very heart of this extraordinary composer.
The English Music Festival, however, does not just look back in time: the concert also included two contemporary works by composers, both born in 1954 – the first British performance of Richard Blackford’s Violin Concerto (again, with Rupert Marshall-Luck) and the world première of a new Symphony, by the Suffolk-based, Christopher Wright (whose orchestral Legend appears on the EMF’s own record label). Blackford’s concerto created an immediate atmosphere of spiritual refreshment, its bright, tonal nature a complete contrast to the pessimistic tendency of most modern music in this country. The opening uplift of the trumpet theme, though, reminded this reviewer, not of anything specifically English, but rather transported me to the wide, open spaces of John Adams’s North America, and his fanfare for orchestra, Tromba Lontana. Above all, the music is a definite, even defiant statement for classicism – for three-movement form, with a traditional beginning, middle and end. The second movement, explained the composer in his programme note, concerned influences of Russian Orthodox chant, whilst the vivacethird movement prickled into life – gathering pace and energy and offering the violin soloist the chance to ride a wave of exciting themes and variations.
Christopher Wright’s Symphony also stands firmly in the tonal tradition – Wright also stating his belief in the continuum of English music. For the next three-quarters of an hour, an orchestral landscape of extraordinary complexity was summoned – with composing which brought several names to mind: the overpowering, brooding atmosphere of John Ireland’s tone-poems; the Neptune movement from The Planets; a dramatic flicker of high-shrieking woodwind – Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, perhaps; the sunshine and shadow of Bax or Rubbra; and – like an echo from the 1950s’ film score of rural fantasy, Gone to Earth*– the supernatural feel of a distant harp. In fact, the English landscape created by Christopher Wright was the musical equivalent of a Paul Nash painting: Landscape of the Vernal Equinox – a place on the downs, suffused with spring light, yet fragmented and slightly distorted.
It is a tribute to the programming policy of Em Marshall-Luck that this important new symphony has been given such prominence. The work must now be recorded – and it deserves to be heard by the widest possible audience, as it is a valuable, exciting new addition to the musical heritage of this country – a reaffirmation of the values and virtues of tradition.
The remainder of the Festival provided other surprises and delights. On Saturday morning, flautist Emma Halnan – a BBC Young Musician of the Year – performed the Sonata for Flute andPiano (Op. 121) by Sir Malcolm Arnold. Written in 1977, it is the last movement which truly beguiles: a typically edgy, jazzy, dotted rhythm, whose dreamy, almost rakish tune sticks in the mind (and the ear) long after each hearing. In Emma Halnan’s hands, the sonata paced up and down, dancing its peculiar jig – the soloist telling a vivid story with the music, and bringing the listeners right into the centre of this chamber-drama with her direct style of performance – physical, informal, with much eye-contact made with the audience. A memorable recital.
The evening brought the Holst Orchestra and Godwine Choir to the Abbey, with a rendition of Vaughan Williams’s cantata, In Windsor Forest (essentially an off-cut from his Falstaff opera, Sir John in Love). With “moonshine revellers and shades of night” – a scene of ghostly sounds and Windsor Forest fairies; not to mention an ale-drinking song full of Tudor heartiness; and concluding with noble sentiments of love and honour – “See the chariot at hand here of love/Wherein my lady rideth/Each that draws is a swan or dove…” – this is, surely, Vaughan Williams in his most authentically English romantic mode and style.
Roderick Williams sang Ivor Gurney’s A.E. Housman settings on Bank Holiday Monday afternoon (the ‘Western Playland’ of Shropshire evoked in these bitter-sweet musical memories) – with the Bridge Quartet also performing the Phantasy Quartet by Herbert Howells, and Elgar’s Piano Quintet, the greatest product of his period at Brinkwells in the Sussex countryside, just before the end of the First World War. The pastoral mysticism of Howells was nicely paired with the Elgar, the second movement of which contains one of the composer’s greatest elegies – a moment of reflection before the torrent of feeling gathered up for the triumphant finale.
Finally, at eventide and for the last concert of this Twelfth English Music Festival, the prestigious chamber orchestra, Camerata Wales (an ensemble that records on the Swedish record label, BIS) appeared with its Chief Conductor, Owain Arwel Hughes CBE. Fielding just 15 players, the orchestra nevertheless produced a full, radiant silken sound that seemed to carry throughout the Abbey building, as if a much larger body of players were performing.
Owain Arwel Hughes has a lifetime of experience in the English and British repertoire. Radio 3 listeners may recall a stupendous studio performance of Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony some years ago with the BBC Philharmonic; and the same composer’s A London Symphony live from the Swansea Festival, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. But here, at Dorchester, we were on a smaller scale, with the delicacy of George Dyson’s Woodland Suite– a wistful dream interlude, taking the listener to the England of The Wind in the Willows, or to a late-Victorian painting in which magical beings appear in the forest flora. The hushed, graceful violin tone of the Camerata in this music was a rare privilege to savour.
The most substantial work of their concert was the Fantasia in A minor by the conductor’s father, Arwel Hughes – a music administrator for BBC Wales and a pupil of Vaughan Williams. The slow pizzicato opening of this 15-minute work, and the lonely cello phrase which appears soon after, establishes a Vaughan Williams-like atmosphere – similar to the Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1, although here we are undoubtedly in a remote Cambrian landscape, rather than East Anglia. The viola playing, too, of the orchestra was sublime, as was the touching violin solo which comes in shortly after the elegant energy of the fugue. And in this tender passage, there is a definite sense, or impression, of the pastoralism of Herbert Howells – a touching moment at the conclusion of a memorable weekend pilgrimage for music.
Founded by Owain Arwel Hughes in 1986, the Welsh Proms has become a well-loved annual fixture in the musical life of Cardiff. Attracting orchestras from all over the country, the season – which this year lasts from the 21st-28thJuly – offers an invigorating array of orchestral, choral, organ and folk music, with the opening-night concert consisting of The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins.
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra also appears in a programme of endearing and enduring classical favourites – exactly the sort of programme to bring young people into the world of classical music. The Royal Philharmonic contributes an evening of classic film music; and the vivacious harpist, Claire Jones, joins that ensemble for the climactic ‘Last Night of the Welsh Proms’ – giving the first performance of a Harp Concerto by Gareth Wood, whose Songs of Wales also make their time-honoured appearance in the flag-waving finale.
Sadly, news has reached us that the Welsh Government – usually a supporter of the arts – has had to withdraw funding from the Festival. Naturally, there is great pressure on budgets and spending at all levels of government across the United Kingdom, but it is difficult to understand why the leaders of Wales would turn their backs on an arts festival which puts their country centre-stage. Everyone who cares for music should urge the Welsh Government to think again.
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review
*Gone to Earth, a film based upon the writings of Mary Webb. The score was written by English composer, Brian Easdale