ENDNOTES, September 2021

Semyon Bychkov

ENDNOTES, September 2021

In this edition: British oboe quintets, from Chandos Record; Holiday music by Elgar; reviewed by Stuart Millson; Coda, Romancing the Dome, by the Editor

The Doric String Quartet accompanies Nicholas Daniel, oboe, on the Chandos label in a new issue of quintets by Arnold Bax, Gerald Finzi, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arthur Bliss and Frederick Delius – although in truth, only the Bax and Bliss works from the 1920s are specifically named by their composers as “quintets”. The Vaughan Williams contribution to the programme, the impressionist-in-timbre Six Studies in English Folksong from 1928, for example, appears in a 1983 arrangement for cor anglais; and there is an earlier version of the work (again on Chandos) for clarinet and piano. The Delius item is an arrangement of Two Interludes from Fennimore and Gerda, crafted by the composer’s amanuensis, Eric Fenby. The Finzi work dates from the 1930s and is entitled Interlude (Op. 21) for oboe and string quartet; a work in a single movement that carries the composer’s distinctive gift for pastoral melancholy, yet personal strength of feeling and harmonic individuality.

A melancholy mood sets the stage at the opening of Bax’s quintet, a sense of the Celtic twilight for which the composer (a lover of Irish culture) was renowned. Nicholas Daniel plays the gentle, rolling opening of the work superbly – with a wave of emotion soon appearing from the strings (a moment reminiscent of Warlock’s astringent meditation on loss, The Curlew). Folk-like fragments begin to appear in the music – more momentum develops, and then, like a tide beginning to ebb, another lull appears, with the oboe serenading us and gentle whispers from strings answering in turn.

The Bliss quintet was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, an American sponsor of the arts and a great believer in modern composers, and came from a productive time in the composer’s life spent in the United States. The piece, graceful and effortless, flowing like a stream at its outset, climbs into more intricate tributaries and territories as it progresses; and seems to withhold itself from the more impetuous, sometimes manic momentum which can be so dazzling in other Bliss works such as A Colour Symphony. For those accustomed to the bold phrases and commanding presence of Bliss’s symphonic music, this quintet – dedicated to that aristocrat of the oboe, Leon Goossens – offers a more introspective side to this sometimes under-rated 20th-century composer. Lovers of the genre of music which combines English romanticism and the tense, more “acute”angles of early modernism will relish the piece, and will find playing of the highest order. Nicholas Daniel and the Doric are especially impressive in the Andante second movement, with its haunting pizzicato and then gradual acceleration into a wider, arching theme, before falling and fading away to the haze of the horizon with the lightest of musical brush-strokes.

If the spirit of this CD collection could be distilled into one short musical utterance it would have to be the third section of Vaughan Williams’s Six Studies in English Folksong – the softest, simplest, most heart-breaking Larghetto movement, based upon the folk-song, Van Diemen’s Land. There is a profound sense of looking back, of regret, in this tiny piece; with the reedy cor anglais – shortly before the end – just raising the music above the treetops, or taking flight in a moment where the harmony changes, allowing the folk-tune to soar for those beautiful few final seconds.

More music now that soars across the landscape: Elgar’s 1905 Introduction and Allegro for Strings (Op. 47), a great Handelian-style concerto grosso; an intense 15-minutes of breathtaking string writing which has some of its origins in the fresh, coastal air of West Wales. On a holiday to Llangranog in Cardiganshire, Elgar said that he heard – drifting on the breeze – the songs of country-people, one voice answering another on a summer hillside. This nostalgic recollection informs the famous gentle theme, which drifts like a cloud, soon after the impetuous, commanding opening to the work; and the whole piece receives a sensitive, exciting interpretation by the Capella Istropolitana on an album that has arrived in the CD review pile at The Quarterly Review, entitled – ‘The Best of Elgar’.

The orchestra on this Naxos-issued CD may not have quite the taut precision of classic versions of the Introduction and Allegro – such as Benjamin Britten’s reading with the English Chamber Orchestra (on Decca), but the Capella’s performance is nonetheless exciting – with conductor, Adrian Leaper, setting out the work in a grandness of style; slowing the music at certain important moments, an effect which contributes to the noble character of this monumental piece of British orchestral music. At times, the listener might feel as though he or she is watching a film of our landscape, but with the sequences gradually slowing and lingering over particular hilltops and views of the sea.

It seems that Elgar had in mind a possible Welsh Overture, an idea which the composer eventually discarded. His greatest work for strings more than makes up for the unwritten Cambrian orchestral fanfare. By all accounts (see Jerrold Northrop Moore’s, Elgar – A Creative Life) the Elgar holiday to Wales was a great success – and not by any means just a spiritual composing affair. One young relation commented on Elgar in his Edwardian beach attire: “Uncle Edward looks like a monkey!” – an amusing anecdote, and one which sheds interesting light on the ordinary, day-to-day lives of our great composers.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
CD details: Nicholas Daniel plays Bax, Vaughan Williams, Bliss oboe quintets, Chandos 20226.
The Best of Elgar, including the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Naxos, 8.556672.
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BBC Proms, 2021, Friday 3 September, reviewed by LJ

Romancing the Dome

Inane football commentators would call this concert a “game of two halves”. Before the interval, Beethoven’s stirring Overture Coriolan, with its echoes of the warlike references in Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony no 3, was followed by Kirill Gerstein’s rendition of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. Both performances were well received. But the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its dynamic conductor Semyon Bychkov had evidently been husbanding their resources for The Scottish Symphony. When it commenced, the audience was instantly rapt and the orchestra was on fire.

In eloquent contemporaneous letters home, Mendelssohn referred to the awful weather that he and his companion Karl Klingemann experienced in Scotland during their 1829 visit, which made “trees and rocks crash”. Their brief encounter with Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford was a non-event. The poverty of the people and melancholy character of the countryside left an indelible impression on the composer. So did the ruins of Holyrood Chapel, where Mary was once crowned Queen of Scotland. “Everything [now] broken and moldering, and the bright sky shines in”, he ruefully recorded.

Maestro Bychkov’s attention to detail is remarkable. His hands, when he dispenses with the baton, are as expressive as Mendelssohn’s score. What other great symphonies will he rejuvenate next? “Rigorous Russian pedagogy” will alone decide.

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