Overture for the 2013 English Music Festival

English Music Festival begins the year with curtain-raiser of rare gems

The Orchestra of St. Paul’s, conductor, Ben Palmer at St. John’s, Smith Square, London. 28th February 2013


Before a note was played at February’s English Music Festival gala concert (part of their UK and European concert series), Mrs. Em Marshall-Luck, founder of this remarkable enterprise, took to the stage to introduce her players and repertoire. Unearthing old scores for the very first time, or rediscovering overlooked masterpieces of English and British music is the aim of the EMF, now approaching its seventh season; and as Em explained, the main Festival, beginning on the 24th May will contain three world premieres, two by Vaughan Williams, and one (the Second Symphony) by Sir Walford Davies, most famous, perhaps, as the writer of the RAF March Past. How strange that audiences have had to wait for so long to hear these compositions, and why is Sir Walford’s symphonic work unknown? The English Music Festival provides answers, and remedies, to these questions.

Ben Palmer

The evening at St. John’s afforded a glimpse of what will come in the spring: truly adventurous programming, and a desire to present an almost alternative perspective for English music. The first work which Ben Palmer and his versatile chamber-sized symphonic orchestra played was a 1938 creation in three short movements by Frank Bridge, Vignettes de danse; detailed and finely-proportioned miniatures, which created something of a Southern European spirit, and perhaps echoed Bax’s more famous and more direct-in-style, Mediterranean. Small-scale pieces work very well in the acoustic of St. John’s, that beautiful church near Westminster, now converted into a concert-hall. The textures of the Bridge Vignettes floated into the air, in an acoustic which although blessed with a feeling of reverberation and ‘echo’ is nevertheless clear and un-muddy, and free from any distortions and the dryness associated with more modern halls.

The main work in the first half was the Violin Concerto by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, a great teacher and part of the English musical renaissance, particularly that part of the artistic flowering most associated with figures such as Parry, and Elgar: solid, romantic music, with connections to the Germanic style of the later 19th century, but with a profound, pronounced, perhaps difficult-to-summarise aura of Englishness. Stanford was once a famous composer, his Third Symphony (1887) being chosen to open Amsterdam’s great hall, the Concertgebouw; and yet today, we know him mainly for his setting of Drake’s Drum in Songs of the Sea. Fine and salty, and nostalgic, as this song is, it does not tell the whole of Stanford’s story.

Fortunately, the Violin Concerto, orchestrated by scholar, Jeremy Dibble, and admirably championed and played by the brilliant British soloist, Rupert Marshall-Luck, allowed us to see yet another unknown side of our musical heritage. Dating from 1918, the concerto had a lyricism (with lovely woodwind writing) and impressive structure, not perhaps as sweeping as Elgar’s incomparable work for the same combination of solo instrument and symphony orchestra, but nevertheless a ‘presence’ – especially, the darker slow movement which brought to mind clouds drifting across an Irish or Scottish landscape. (We should remember that Stanford was born in Dublin!) A sense of world events in the four years which led to the concerto’s composition should also not be forgotten. It must also be said that Rupert Marshall-Luck had a great deal of presence, too – and not just his brilliant skill and careful craftsmanship as a violinist. Full marks to this musician for wearing white tie and tails, clothing that is entirely right for music of this era, and for the act of music-making in general. Music is a ritual, and something to be honoured and savoured. It cannot, surely, be fully appreciated in casual dress.

Rupert Marshall-Luck

The interval saw the Festival CD ‘shop’ buzzing with business: eager English music enthusiasts buying the fine recordings which Em Marshall-Luck and her team of archivists and recording engineers have created; and it was encouraging to see this newish label receiving praise in the ordinary conversations of the concertgoers, all of whom seemed to be greatly attuned to the cause which the evening represented. The recording arm of the EMF, EM Records, is an institution that puts one in mind of Chandos or Lyrita, companies which combined a passion for exceptional sound, and rare, unregarded repertoire. So far, chamber music, and works for smaller-scale ensembles have formed the discography. It can only be a matter of time before large-scale symphonies enter the growing catalogue: Havergal Brian, I hope, or Elgar, or Cecil Armstrong Gibbs; perhaps, Parry, Bantock and Vaughan Williams.

And so it was time for the second half to begin, with an intriguing ballet score for small orchestra by Britten, Plymouth Town, an early work (1931) by this prolific Suffolk-born musician. We celebrate the Britten centenary this year, and how exciting that the Festival gave us a work that had been, for many years, lost in a huge pile of the composer’s jottings and student works. And again, we see just how important the EMF’s idealism is; a musical version, no less, of Channel 4’s archaeological programme, Time Team. Quite seriously, it is almost the same principle; hunches, investigations and revelations that bring our inheritance before our eyes.

Conjured into life by Ben Palmer and his orchestra, the opening rhythm of the ballet – almost primitive in its sparse strangeness – suggested the style of the score for Night Mail, the famous 1936 film which saw the collaboration of Auden and Britten. Plymouth Town has an instantaneous quality: by which I mean a realism, a sense of black-and-white, a directness and potency which evoked (to me) something of Stravinsky’s sinister, supernatural Petrushka. Britten’s Plymouth, though, is all about a sailor who succumbs to all kinds of temptations and misfortunes; and the very well-informed programme note for the evening suggested the theme of the corruption of innocence – an idea which informed several of the composer’s later works.

E. J. Moeran

Racing to the concert’s finale was E.J. Moeran’s Sinfonietta of 1944, dedicated to the great Sir Arthur Bliss, and inspired by the landscape of Radnorshire.

The arms of Radnorshire

Energy, wit, and quick wits abound in Moeran’s writing, and whenever his music is played (and it is played, I am sorry to say, infrequently) I cannot help but think of the composer’s time in the Kentish village of Eynsford, with that eccentric and elusive writer of the suite, Capriol, Peter Warlock. It is said, that on Sundays at their cottage in the High Street, “the kitchen was swimming in beer”! Moeran’s works have great force, a folkish, spritely spirit, and seem to exist in a sound-world that might be associated with Bax. The Sinfonietta provided an ideal end to this evening of discovery.

We now look forward to the 24th May at Dorchester Abbey, in rural Oxfordshire, for the first night of the main Festival for 2013.

STUART MILLSON is the QR‘s Music Editor

The English Music Festival’s website –  http://www.englishmusicfestival.org.uk/ – contains full details of this year’s programme, and a vast amount of composer-information.

Ben Palmer takes to the platform at Dorchester, conducting his Orchestra of St. Paul’s in a series of new commissions.

Martin Yates (who distinguished himself at last year’s opening night in works by Vaughan Williams, Ireland and Moeran) conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra once again, but this time in works which include the world premiere of Vaughan Williams’s The Solent.

Rupert Marshall-Luck appears on EM Records, and gives a truly beautiful performance of the powerful, noble and soaring themes to be found in the Bliss Violin Sonata.

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