In concert – English Music Festival Christmas Concerts

Em Marshall-Luck (narrator), Heather Wrighton (harp), Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Duncan Honeybourne (piano)

Parish Alvars Romance in F (1842)
Lewis Four Anticke Dances (2015)
Rutter Dancing Day – Interlude (1974)
Britten A Ceremony of Carols – Interlude (1942)
Adie Festive Fantasy (2018)
Thomas Cambria (1863)
Parry Freundschaftslieder (1872)
Various A Christmas Garland (2020) [World Premiere Performance]

St. Mary’s Church, Horsham, 17 December 2020

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Christmas events have inevitably been few and far between this season, thereby making these concerts by the English Music Festival especially welcome – the more so given that St Mary’s Horsham proved to be an ideal location for music-making of such intimacy and inwardness.

A tale of two contrasted halves saw the first devoted to music for the harp – opening with the doyen of 19th-century practitioners, Elias Parish Alvars, whose Romance eloquently spanned the gamut of possibilities from winsome introspection to dextrous virtuosity. Paul Lewis has done much to enrich the modern repertoire, his Four Anticke Dances evoking various dance-measures of the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras through melodies entirely original yet wholly avoiding pastiche. Two interludes from well-known larger collections followed, the ethereal remoteness of that from John Rutter’s Dancing Day contrasting with the delicate playfulness of that from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, then Harriet Adie’s Festive Fantasy combined 12 carols in various moods and styles for what is a gift to this instrument. Heather Wrighton rendered this and all those preceding pieces with unfailing assurance; joining with Duncan Honeybourne for Cambria by John Thomas, whose pioneering work in dissemination of Welsh music amply demonstrated in elaborate arrangements of three traditional melodies.

The second half commenced with Freundschaftslieder, four (from a likely total of six) pieces in which the young Parry confirmed growing assurance as a composer. If not overly cohesive, these make for a diverting sequence – whether in the harmonic and rhythmic ambivalence of a Nocturne in G minor, listless agitation of an Allegro in C minor, speculative unfolding of a Ballade in D minor, or confiding wistfulness of an Andante in E major whose subtitle The Confidence of Love underlines Parry’s adherence to an earlier era of musical Romanticism.

Rupert Marshall-Luck rendered these pieces with no mean virtuosity; then he, Honeybourne and narrator Em Marshall-Luck came together for the first hearing of A Christmas Garland – an anthology centred upon the theme of Christmas. It opened with John Pickard’s idiomatic arrangement of his choral piece O Magnum Mysterium, continuing with Richard Pantcheff’s luminous setting of Rilke’s The Annunciation to Mary then restrained fervency of Graham Keitch’s Intrada; prior to Cecilia McDowell’s ruminative take on Christina Rosetti’s Before the paling of Stars. EMF regular Richard Blackford contributed the atmospheric piano piece Christmas Dawn, leading to the elegiac tones of Paul Lewis’s setting of his poem Will There be Snow? and Paul Carr’s appealing take on Rosetti’s evergreen In the Bleak Midwinter. The piano miniatures of Roderick Williams’s Winterscapes provided a pertinent interlude before David Matthews’s entrancing (if unfinished?) setting of Anne Brontë’s Music on Christmas Morning, then James MacMillan’s paraphrase on his setting of John Donne’s poem Nativity.

Paul Lewis re-emerged with an elegant song-and-dance Christmas Twosome in the guise of Fireside Carol and Christmas Waltz, then came Thomas Hewitt Jones’s Sleigh ride with a tired reindeer: as humorous yet speculative a conclusion as one written in 2020 needed to be.

Further information can be found at the English Music Festival website

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