Online concert – English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Festival 2022

Elgar arr. Fraser Nursery Suite (1931 arr. 2022) World premiere of this arrangement
David Matthews Shiva Dances Op.161 (2021) World premiere

English String Orchestra (soloists Zoë Beyers, Suzanne Casey (violins), Carl Hill (viola) and Joely Koos (cello) / Kenneth Woods

Filmed at the Guildhall, Worcester, Friday 3 June 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

Welcome listening for the new year provided by the English String Orchestra, as taken from a programme at this year’s Elgar Festival and which featured the premiere of that composer’s last notable work in what is an idiomatic and often perceptive arrangement by Donald Fraser.

His previous Elgar arrangements ranging from miniatures to the Piano Quintet, Fraser duly captured the wistful charm of the initial Aubade then discreet pathos of The Serious Doll. The ESO steered a secure course through the headlong intricacy of Busy-ness, with the deft profundity of The Sad Doll afforded full rein. Solo strings against an implacable rhythmic ostinato offset any lack of visceral impact in The Waggon (sic) Passes, then the high spirits of The Merry Doll were jauntily in evidence. The extended finale, Dreaming is a threnody of tangible emotional import and a resume of earlier themes on its way to a forthright if not a little regretful coda. Kenneth Woods ensured this had gravitas without losing focus, while a bravura showing from Zoë Beyers was but the last in a sequence of solos all admirably taken.

Solos are by no means absent from Shiva Dances by David Matthews. The combination of string quartet and string orchestra has potent Elgarian connotations, of which the composer avails himself in this continuous sequence inspired as much by Aldous Huxley’s description of the Hindu god Shiva as by Indian classical music. Moving from a slow introduction given piquancy by its modal intonations, the work comprises four dances that between them outline the four elements: an impetuous workout representing ‘earth’, a quixotic interplay for soloists and ensemble that of ‘water’, the scherzo-like agility of ‘air’, and an animated waltz for ‘fire’. This latter builds to a forceful restatement of the opening theme, before a coda intensifies the overall expression such that what came before is rendered from a more ethereal perspective.

It says much for the prowess of the ESO that this first hearing betrayed few signs of caution or uncertainty, Woods directing a confident account with which Matthews must have been well pleased. Those listening to this online programme can also hear an encore in the guise of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, taken from a performance during last year’s Elgar Festival and which exudes a searching eloquence as seems to look beyond forthcoming celebrations to that overtly commemorative atmosphere from only a matter of weeks later.

This concert could be accessed free until 1 January 2023 at the English Symphony Orchestra website, but remains available through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods, or on composer David Matthews

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