In concert – Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

Beethoven Egmont, Op. 84 – Overture (1809-10)
Elcock Violin Concerto, Op. 13 (1996-2006) [UK premiere]
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914/20); Symphony no.5 in D major (1938-43)

Zoë Beyers (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Routh Hall, Bromsgrove School
Friday 27 May 2022

There will be many concerts over the next fortnight celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, but few (if any) of more substance than that given tonight by the English Symphony Orchestra with its principal conductor Kenneth Woods, taking place on the attractive campus of Bromsgrove School some miles from Birmingham.

It might not have been written for this occasion, but the Violin Concerto by the ESO’s current composer-in-association Steve Elcock (above) was no less impressive for that. This marks something of a transition from those less ambitious pieces written for local musicians and the symphonic works now being recorded to great acclaim. It opens with an Allegro vivo whose rhythmic energy is maintained throughout, yet with enough expressive contrast for its second theme to assume greater expressive emphasis in the reprise. The highlight is a Molto tranquillo whose haunting main theme, initially unfolded by the soloist over undulating upper strings in a texture inspired by change-ringing techniques, is a memorable inspiration. A pavane-like idea later comes into focus and the closing stage, opening onto an eloquent plateau before evanescing into silence, lingers in the memory. The finale is a Passacaglia whose theme accelerates in five variations from Andante to Presto, culminating in a ‘cadenza’ for violin and timpani then a decisive pay-off.

A tough challenge, indeed, for any soloist and one which Zoë Beyers met with assurance over its 30-minute course. Aside from its sheer velocity the first movement is notable for a close-knit interplay between soloist and orchestra that was brought off with admirable precision, while the modal subtleties of the slow movement were rendered as enhancements to its overall tonal trajectory. Aside from a slight falling away of tension toward its centre, the finale saw the piece to a forceful close. Good to hear these performers recorded it prior to this performance, as a coupling to the Eighth Symphony that the ESO premiered last year, and which should be released over the coming months.

Beyers returned after the interval to launch a Vaughan Williams second-half (this year being the 150th anniversary of his birth) with The Lark Ascending. Easy to take for granted now that it is so frequently performed, the piece can still work its magic in an attentive rendering such as this. The underlying tempo might have been on the slow side, but the elegance and poise invested into the solo line were not to be gainsaid, nor was the translucency of orchestral textures which Kenneth Woods shaped with due restraint through the folk-like central section then into the easeful closing pages. Suffice to add that the unaccompanied final bars held those present spellbound with their artlessness.

There was at least as much to admire in the reading of VW’s Fifth Symphony which here followed on inevitably. A steady overall tempo for the Preludio did not exclude a palpable accumulation of energy in its development, nor a build-up of real fervency with the thrilling re-entry of its second theme. Understated it may be, but the Scherzo is replete with rhythmic quirks and while these were not always ideally negotiated, the music’s sardonic humour and ultimate evaporation were tellingly rendered. Doubtless this work’s emotional heart, the Romanza was admirably realized in its gradual coalescing of hymnal and folk-inflected elements towards a nobly wrought apex, but Woods kept enough in reserve so the final Passacaglia never risked becoming an anti-climax. It earlier stages conveyed  an emotional release as is countered by the ensuing anxiety then fateful reappearance of the work’s opening theme, subsiding into a coda which feels as much a benediction now as when it was first heard almost eight decades ago.

Beethoven‘s overture to Goethe’s Egmont might have seemed anomalous in this context but, as Woods pointed out in his opening remarks, the heroes and villains of 16th-century ‘Spanish Netherlands’ were not so far removed from those of today and, as the heady closing pages reminded us, triumph over adversity can never be taken for granted.

For further information on Steve Elcock, click here to visit his dedicated site, and for more on Vaughan Williams click here. To find out more about the artists, click on the names for more on Zoë Beyers, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra.

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