In concert – Zoë Beyers, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Journeys of Creation and Renewal: Vaughan Williams, Pritchard, David Matthews and Elgar

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Pritchard Violin Concerto ‘Wall of Water’ (2014)
David Matthews Shiva Dances Op.160 (2021)
Elgar Introduction and Allegro Op.47 (1905)

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

Holy Trinity Church, Hereford
Thursday 24 November 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Just a day after The Journey Home, the ESO reverted to its ‘String’ guise for this judiciously sequenced programme with two contrasted commissions framed by classics of the repertoire for string orchestra – these latter written not so far away from where this concert took place.

Acclaimed at its premiere in Gloucester Cathedral some 112 years ago, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis has never been so popular as it has become this past decade. This performance did it justice – the placing of the ‘echo’ orchestra, behind the altar-screen in the imposing Victorian confines of Holy Trinity Church, abetting those antiphonal exchanges in the central section. Solo string quartet building steadily toward an impassioned culmination, from where Tallis’s theme is movingly recalled prior to the final evanescence.

Next came the welcome revival of an earlier ESO commission by Deborah Pritchard. Inspired by an eponymous series of paintings by Maggi Hambling, Wall of Water is a violin concerto which makes tangible reference to these 13 canvases as it unfolds. Their projection to the rear of the orchestra underlying a visceral as well as imagistic allure, even though the work itself is fully intelligible on its own terms – not least with a three-movement trajectory coalescing out of continuous 13 sections. Elements of Penderecki and Lutosławski can be discerned over its course, but a distinct and engaging personality is also in evidence along with a technical finesse with regard both to the solo writing and that for the strings. Zoë Beyers gave a superb account of a piece which seems sure to enter the repertoire of 21st-century violin concertos.

As too does Shiva Dances by David Matthews. The combination of string quartet and string orchestra is a potent one (see below), of which the composer has availed himself fully in this continuous sequence likely inspired as much in a description of Hindu god Shiva by Aldous Huxley as by Indian classical music. Proceeding from a slow introduction given piquancy by its modal intonations, the work comprises four dances which between them outline the four elements: an impetuous workout that represents ‘earth’, a quixotic interplay for soloists and ensemble that of ‘water’, the scherzo-like agility of ‘air’, then a lively waltz for ‘fire’ – this latter building to a forceful restatement of the opening theme, before the coda opens-out the overall expression such that what went before is rendered from a more ethereal perspective.

Kenneth Woods secured an engaging account of this appealing work, as he did of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro that concluded the evening. As he pointed out, its main melody is a rare instance of this composer using an actual folksong, yet that never entails a lessening of formal intricacy in what becomes a latter-day recasting of the concerto grosso – reaching its emotional apex in a developmental fugue that bristles with technical challenges. A tough test for the London Symphony Orchestra, with whom Elgar enjoyed a productive association.

Suffice to add the ESO was equal to this task as in the sustained fervency of the final pages. It rounded off another worthwhile evening from this always enterprising ensemble. December brings the seasonal performance of Handel’s Messiah, with further concerts in the new year.

For more information on the artists in this concert, click on the links to read about Zoë Beyers, Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra. For more on the composers, click on the names Deborah Pritchard and David Matthews

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