Live review – Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: The Roaring 20s: Decade of Melody & Mayhem

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

Blake (arr. Schuller) Charleston Rag (1915)
Schulhoff Suite for Chamber Orchestra, Op. 37 (1921)
Morton (arr. Schuller) Black Bottom Stomp (1926)
Krenek (arr. Bauer) Fantasie on ‘Jonny spielt auf’ (1927/8)
Milhaud Le boeuf sur le toit, Op. 58b (1920/1)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded 9-10 November, broadcast Thursday 31 December 2020 (online)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra certainly saw in the New Year with style in this attractive and enterprising programme centred on the prevalence but also the range of jazz idioms either side of the Atlantic throughout the 1920s. Its stylistic roots were acknowledged in the panache of Charleston Rag by the long-lived Eubie Blake, then the irresistible verve of Black Bottom Stomp by the lived-dangerously Jelly Roll Morton – both heard in distinctive arrangements by Gunther Schuller, whose own jazz innovations warrant revival as his centenary approaches.

Between these pieces, Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra was a reminder of this composer’s usage of jazz as part of a lifelong and tragically curtailed stylistic odyssey. While the faster numbers recall the wit of Poulenc’s early chamber music and irony of Stravinsky’s suites for theatre orchestra, the Valse Boston – its moody violin solos hauntingly rendered by David Juritz – and Tango admit of an introspection and pathos to the fore in those works from Schulhoff’s last years. Qualities which are here side-lined by the uproarious final Jazz.

It is almost 94 years since Ernst Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf took the German-speaking world by storm, and though its highly Viennese take on jazz lacks the satirical edge as achieved by Weill, the present Fantasie devised by Emil Bauer gives a fine overview of this opera in all its attendant strengths and weaknesses. Abetted by diaphanous orchestration (with its oddly hymnic role for harmonium), the slower sections conjure no mean expressive fervour, while the closing pages exude an affirmation which never feels brittle or forced in its demeanour.

Darius Milhaud had also fastened on to the exuberance of jazz, here with Brazilian overtones, in his ballet Le boeuf sur le toit – as heard in the rarely revived ‘cinéma-fantaisie’ version for violin and orchestra. Perhaps the often equivocal nature of the solo part has mitigated against wider acceptance, but Zoë Beyers took its technical demands confidently in her stride while remaining aware of its ‘first among equals’ status – notwithstanding the strategically placed cadenza (by no less than Arthur Honegger) that brings the soloist unashamedly centre-stage. Credit, too, to the members of the ESO (suitably attired throughout) for having rendered this music’s teasing rhythmic inflections with unfailing poise, and to Kenneth Woods for teasing the maximum finesse from out of Milhaud’s entertaining while not a little provocative score.

It was, indeed, a fine showing all round and would have been ideal before that ‘end of year’ party which circumstances have regrettably made impossible. This event was still a highly positive means of seeing out the old year and welcoming in a much to be anticipated 2021.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 7.30pm on Thursday 31 December 2020 here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

Live review – Jay Reise, Davood Ghadami, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: The Art of Storytelling – The Warrior Violinist

Jay Reise (music), Davood Ghadami (narrator), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 18 December 2020 (online)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Following on from its uproarious version of Lubin from Chelm [*], the English Symphony Orchestra continues its series of pieces for virtual storytelling in the guise of an old Egyptian tale – here given a contemporary twist to result in the ‘morality’ fable The Warrior Violinist.

This is a parable about being careful what one wishes for. It centres on a youth who plays the violin to exclusion of all else, then finds an even greater other love – the Pharaoh’s daughter. Imagining himself inferior, he bids the Sphinx transform him into a great warrior – in which guise he vanquishes Egypt’s enemies. The princess can love only the man she heard playing the violin and when the warrior tries to reclaim his former prowess, he finds himself unable to play – the Sphinx’s warning that no-one can be changed back having proven only too true.

Davood Ghadami is a personable and thoughtful narrator; his understatement enabling one to focus on a musical score that, even more than the previous two in this series, packs a wealth of incident into a through-composed score which is effortlessly sustained over its 18 minutes. A tribute, indeed, to the initiative of Jay Reise in having elaborated a piece written almost a decade ago for this Art of Storytelling series. Not the least of its attractions is the extensive role allotted solo violin, played here by Zoë Beyers with no mean poise and resourcefulness.

The remaining ESO musicians play with skill and sensitivity, while Kenneth Woods ensures clarity of texture even in denser passages. The production should provoke children and adults alike – and, as usual with ESO, a range of sundry material enhances the overall experience.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

For information about Auricolae, visit Kenneth Woods’ website here

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

On record: Simon Callaghan: The Open Window – Sir George Dyson: Complete Music for Piano (Somm Recordings)

Simon Callaghan (piano) *Clíodna Shanahan (piano)

Dyson
Concerto Leggiero (1951)*
The Open Window (1919)
Primrose Mount (1928)
Bach’s Birthday (1929)
Untitled Piano Piece (1890)
Six Lyrics (1920)
My Birthday (1924)
Twelve Easy Pieces (1952)
Prelude and Ballet (1925)
Epigrams (1920)
Three Wartime Epigrams (1920)
Four Twilight Preludes (1920)

Somm Recordings SOMMCD0622-2 [101’58”]
Producer Siva Oke
Engineer Paul Arden-Taylor

Recorded 17-18 January 2020 The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

As the cover suggests, this double album gives us the complete music for piano of Sir George Dyson, including five world premiere recordings ranging from the first piece the composer wrote at the age of seven to a two-piano version of Concerto Leggero, a substantial three-movement work for piano and orchestra completed in 1951.

Paul Spicer, the composer’s biographer, contributes a wonderful booklet note telling the story of Dyson’s life and highlighting the importance of the house piano, brought by Dyson’s parents to encourage his obvious gift for musical in the midst of an impoverished upbringing. It is rather moving to read of the composer’s progression through these years, the piano by his side at every turn.

What’s the music like?

The album is beautifully programmed, taking the biggest piece first. The Concerto Leggiero has many harmonic sleights and twists and turns, especially through its first movement, to which Simon Callaghan and Clíodna Shanahan are alive. This is in complete contrast to the early Dyson piano pieces, which are little nuggets you might expect to encounter in early piano learning – but which have an emotional substance ensuring they last well beyond that sphere.

The Open Window itself is charming, with a softly undulating Field and Wood the first of its eight short movements. Dyson’s descriptions are often little picture postcards, such as the restless description of Swallows, but they frequently have an emotive core, found most poignantly in the closing Evensong. In the same way this short suite was written for young pianists to develop their prowess, the Six Lyrics offer the same opportunity through their melodic cells.

Dyson’s very first Untitled Piano Piece is also included, the seven-year old composer offering a bold attempt lasting just under a minute. At the other end of the scale the Epigrams are slightly shady but intense pockets of emotion, each one somehow finding the uncertainty of post-First World War Britain. The Four Twilight Preludes are disarmingly simple, too, elusive portraits that hang in the air and on occasion call Debussy’s music for children to mind. These small but meaningful pieces show the composer’s ability to bring emotion from what on the outside appears to be simple material.

Bach’s Birthday, meanwhile, shows the composer’s skill at working tight compositional procedures into his music. He uses fugues here in music of remarkable density and expression.

Does it all work?

Yes – because Simon Callaghan proves a very sympathetic interpreter, and the programming gives exactly the right balance of light and shade. Given with affection, it is a charming set of music that works as a pleasant background but is more substantial when listened to closely. Dyson is a composer who, in these piano pieces, packs a lot of meaning into short duration. The experience becomes even more rewarding when enjoyed with Paul Spicer’s commentary.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Open Window fills a notable gap in the British piano music archive, and its support from the Sir George Dyson Trust has secured the completion of an important release. It tells us much more about a composer revered primarily for his choral and orchestral music, illustrating the intimacy he could find in his work. It also serves as a timely reminder of the rich tradition of keyboard music on these shores throughout the 20th century.

For further information on this release, visit the Somm Recordings website

In concert – Members of the English Sinfonia @ St John’s Smith Square: English Miniatures

Members of the English Sinfonia: Janice Graham (violin), Nick Bootiman (viola), Julia Graham (cello) Chris Hopkins (piano)

Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914)
Bridge Miniatures – Book 2, H88 (1910)
Coleridge-Taylor Piano Trio in E minor (1893)
Holst String Trio in G minor (1894)
Bax Piano Quartet in One Movement (1922)

St. John’s, Smith Square, London, 15 December 2020 (lunchtime)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Celebrating its 60th anniversary next year, the English Sinfonia will be remembered by older listeners for those valuable recordings of British music with Neville Dilkes (not least the first modern account of Moeran’s Symphony). Its current incarnation as ensemble-cum-chamber orchestra enables it to tackle a wide repertoire, and even though only the core personnel was featured in this afternoon’s concert, the works that were chosen offered a more than plausible overview of British chamber music composed across the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Easy to forget that, long before his music assumed a more radical mindset, Frank Bridge was a composer of lighter fare. Hence those three sets of Miniatures for piano trio – classy salon music of which the second set moves from a soulful while never cloying Romance, via an infectious and decidedly scherzo-like Intermezzo, to a Saltarello with more than a hint of menace in its hectic dash. By comparison, the Piano Trio of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor tries a little too hard to impress. If this early piece is hardly the equal of such as the later Clarinet Quintet, its three compact movements are never less than eventful – whether in the vehement Allegro with its portentous opening, a Scherzo whose unremitting energy brings little respite, or Finale whose distinctive furiant rhythm sees the whole work through to a forthright close.

Unlike the above, Holst composed relatively few chamber pieces in his maturity. While his String Trio evinces little sense of what he went on to achieve, this does not lack for incident. Idiosyncratic, too, in that its compact and forthright opening movement is followed by one which, over twice as long, integrates a slow movement, scherzo and finale that add up to an unlikely if cohesive whole; the fugal intricacies of that final section a stern test of ensemble such as the present players despatched with evident resolve. Appreciably more characteristic is the Piano Quartet by Bax – its tensile single movement packing a wide range of ideas and moods into little more than 10 minutes; and following an essentially conflicted to triumphal trajectory recalling that of the combative First Symphony which immediately preceded it.

Opening this afternoon’s programme, Janice Graham gave an affecting account of The Lark Ascending in the version for violin and piano first heard in public exactly 100 years ago. Now the orchestral version has become ubiquitous, this chamber guise can feel almost a reduction, yet the lucidity of its formal layout becomes even more explicit, and the understated poise of its piano part – as rendered by Chris Hopkins – belies any doubts as to Vaughan Williams’s limitations when writing for the instrument. An eloquent start to an enterprising programme.

Further information at https://www.englishsinfonia.org.uk/