ENDNOTES, May 2021

St Mary le Port, Bristol (1940), John Piper (1903-1992)

ENDNOTES, May 2021

In this edition: Phoenix – music for oboe and piano from EM Records;  Imogen Holst’s Suite for Solo Viola; Eleanor Alberga takes to The Wild Blue Yonder; Czech Philharmonic – online, reviewed by Stuart Millson

We venture into the fresh air of England’s fields this May, with Four Country Dances, written in 2000 by Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) – performed with lightness, delicacy and sentimental charm by aspiring young artists, Nicola Hands, oboe, and the pianist, Jonathan Pease. A wide variety of styles was embraced by Richard Rodney Bennett – from the exuberant Anniversaries, performed at the 1982 Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, to cabaret songs, jazz and the magnificent score to Murder on the Orient Express. Here, though, the composer sounds as though he is reinventing the music of George Butterworth – an English idyll from another age, especially in the opening movement, A New Dance. Followed by such evocative titles as Lady Day, The Mulberry Garden and Nobody’s Jig, we must thank Em Marshall-Luck of the English Music Festival’s recording arm, EM Records, for the inclusion of this gorgeous, little-known miniature masterpiece.

But Marshall-Luck’s enterprising programme on disc takes us beyond village revelries, to the more ambitious structures of the 1934 Oboe Sonata by William Alwyn, the English symphonist and film-music composer who lived for many years in the pastoral landscape of Blythburgh, Suffolk.

The sound-world of Vaughan Williams or Howells is, perhaps, never far away, but in his programme notes, pianist and composer Jonathan Pease points out a certain Gallic charm and flavor of the ballroom in the “elegant waltz” which threads through the later stages of the score. In the opening of the Andantino second movement, an English timelessness is evoked: a poignant echo for this reviewer of the Oxfordshire countryside in which the English Music Festival, prior to the Covid crisis, was held. Also on the disc are more startling contemporary works by Michael Berkeley – Snake, of 1994; Jonathan Dove’s catchy, Lament for a Lovelorn Lemanshee (1993); and an interesting portrait of the Westbourne area of London, its roots and many changes over the centuries, by Jonathan Pease (b. 1988).

Produced at the Space Mountain Studios, Spain, in the November of 2018, Adila Records presents the often overlooked composer Imogen Holst, with a world-premiere recording of the four-movement Suite for Solo Violaof 1930. Excellent improvisations and performances of Bach, the Partita No. lll in E Major of Solo Violin, for example and the contemporary composer, Ragnar Soderlind, also feature but the Holst is the gem of the collection – an intense work, bordering on an ethereal, stretched tonality: lonely, strange meanderings that seem to anticipate Benjamin Britten. And yet, some of Imogen’s father’s liking of folk-character infuses the score – not in a sentimental way, but like a lost spirit in the landscape. Finally, the violinist and violist, Violeta Vicci, of Spanish and Swiss descent, performs her eclectic and haunting contemporary music with utter conviction; creating with just one instrument and the inclusion of the human voice in a mournful vocalise by modernist, Jean-Louis Florentz, a strikingly “large” sound, with works infused with a certain brooding feeling.

More contemporary music, this time from Eleanor Alberga, the Jamaican-born, Royal Academy-trained composer who made a great impression at the Last Night of the 2015 Proms with her choral-orchestral affirmation of art and music – Arise Athena!  – the piece that launched the evening with great strength and uplift. From Navona Records comes her thoughtful No-man’s land Lullaby (1997) – with Thomas Bowes, violin, and the composer at the piano – a meditation on the First World War and its ghostly landscapes. The Shining Gate of Morpheus – a piece from 2012 – follows; and here Alberga wanders into the shadows, with horn-player Richard Watkins, guiding us slowly and tentatively through the dark, in the manner of the “nightwatchman” horn-call in Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, second-movement “Nachtmusik” – or Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. One detects overtones of Britten, his Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, in Succubus Moon in which Nicholas Daniel (oboe) and the Ensemble Arcadiana give a virtuoso performance of a highly-elaborate work. There are no boundaries to the imagination in the final work on the disc, The Wild Blue Yonder – a piece which begins in the meditative manner of Debussy or Messaien, but then takes flight in a wild dance.

Finally, we must thank major European arts bodies, such as the splendid Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, for their determination to bring live music to their Covid-generation audiences, albeit through the medium of online streaming. Under maestro Semyon Bychkov, the orchestra – so well-known for the spiky sound it memorably created on the Supraphon Records label – has more of a Vienna Philharmonic-type burnish to it these days – yet still preserving that vigorous blast of brass from the trumpets, that Bohemian rural radiance to the wind-playing. For those who know and admire Paul Kletzki’s vintage account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 with the Czech orchestra of 1968, it is clear that Prague’s Beethoven tradition has been sustained and strengthened over the decades – with Bychkov leading his players (in their spring concert) through the ‘Eroica Symphony’ with abounding energy and nobility, thrilling us, as ever, with a finale that rushes in a single, unstoppable torrent. We look forward to the day when we can see and hear the orchestra “in the flesh” – but perhaps the availability of streaming will open up a new, younger audience for the great orchestras.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

CD details: Phoenix – Richard Rodney Bennett, Alwyn et al, EMR CD066; Violeta Vicci, Imogen Holst, Bach, Florentz, ARCD 010; Eleanor Alberga, Wild Blue Yonder, NV6346; Czech Philharmonic – streaming arranged by Macbeth Media Relations; Paul Kletzki’s vintage recordings from the 1950s and ‘60s are widely available via the internet

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