Sarah Beth Briggs (piano, above), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Sawyers The Valley of Vision (2017)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.22 in E flat major K482 (1785)
Beethoven Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1808)
Town Hall, Cheltenham
Monday 25 October 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse; picture of Sarah Beth Briggs by Carolyn Mendelsohn
Tonight’s concert found the English Symphony Orchestra at the Town Hall in Cheltenham, a building of Victorian opulence with an expansive while (surprisingly?) immediate acoustic to match, in a programme featuring classics of their respective media by Mozart and Beethoven.
First, though, a welcome revival for The Valley of Vision – the tone poem by Philip Sawyers that surveys the environs around Shoreham, Kent as were immortalized in the visionary early landscapes of Samuel Palmer. Although the composer had identified five continuous sections, the probing intensity of this music makes for a seamless unfolding which was to the fore in a superbly focussed account as directed by Kenneth Woods (who recently premiered Sawyers’ Fifth Symphony at the Colorado Mahler Festival). No less tangible was the control over this music’s momentum, extending through to a climactic faster section before soon regaining its initial pensiveness. In its subtly evocative aura and persuasive handling of tonality, moreover, this piece can rank with the most significant British orchestral works of the past two decades.
From the six piano concertos that Mozart wrote for his subscription concerts during the mid-1780s, the Twenty-Second is likely the least often heard. A pity, when its relatively expansive form and unpredictability of content are striking even in the context of this most exploratory phase from the composer’s output. Certainly, it is a piece of which Sarah Beth Briggs had the measure – whether in the forceful impetus of its opening Allegro, winsome interplay between soloist and woodwind in the central Andante (arguably the most eloquent among Mozart’s sets of variations) or blithe unfolding of a final Rondo afforded greater pathos by the ‘harmonien’ episode whose interposing was an inspired departure. Nor were Dennis Matthews’s succinct and artfully integrated cadenzas other than an enhancement of what was a fine performance.
Not that there was there anything routine about Beethoven’s Pastoral following the interval, a worthy successor to those performances of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies that Woods and the ESO have given in recent concerts. Thus, a purposeful though never inflexible take on the opening movement left sufficient room to characterize its reflective asides, with the ‘Scene by the brook’ even more engrossing through its homogeneity of texture and seamless continuity; the closing bird-calls elegantly phrased and enticingly integrated into the whole.
Too rapid a tempo for the scherzo left Woods with insufficient room to point up contrasts in motion with its trio sections, but the Thunderstorm was finely rendered as an extended introduction into the finale – this Shepherd’s Song emerging as the formal and emotional culmination in all respects. Not the least of these strengths was an inevitability of progress – here maintained right through to a coda of serene poise and, in the process, underlining the degree to which any vestige of self has been sublimated into the enveloping cosmic dance.
An absorbing performance as made one look forward to further Beethoven symphonies from this source. Woods and ESO are in Worcester at the weekend with two concerts as part of the Autumn Elgar Festival, the first featuring the masterly Elegy for Strings by Harold Truscott.
Further information on the ESO’s current season can be found at their website. For more on composer Philip Sawyers, visit his website here, while more on pianist Sarah Beth Briggs can be found at her website