Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Composer Portrait – Walter Arlen

Walter Arlen
Songs of Songs (1955)
The Poet in Exile (1991)

Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), Gwilym Bowen (tenor), Thomas Mole (baritone), BBC National Chorus of Wales, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Studio recording at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 17-20 February 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

Although he is likely best known by his trenchant music criticism for the Los Angeles Times, Vienna-born Walter Arlen has made a distinguished contribution to music administration and is increasingly being recognized as a composer. Several releases of his songs and piano music can be heard on the Gramola label, and this latest of the English Symphony Orchestra online concerts provides a welcome introduction to two of his works that feature orchestra – the one drawing on ancient Jewish sources with the other on poems from a leading modern author.

Whether The Song of Songs is indeed harbinger of monogamy in the Judeo-Christian moral code, it contains some of the eloquent expression in either of the Biblical testaments and has long provided a potent inspiration for musical treatment. In just under 30 minutes, Arlen’s ‘dramatic poem’ takes in the main narrative – the lively opening chorus features much sub-divided writing for female chorus underpinned by incisive orchestral textures. As the piece unfolds, it becomes evident that emotional emphasis is placed upon the solo contributions – whether those of King Solomon as sung with burnished warmth by Thomas Mole, those of the Shepherdess rendered with winsome poise and not a little insouciance by Anna Huntley, or those of the Shepherd which Gwilym Bowen here projects with no mean virility but also tenderness. Nor is the BBC National Chorus of Wales found wanting in passages with textural intricacy and intonational accuracy at a premium. If the final resolution does not bring the expected closure, the direct and unaffected appeal of this setting certainly warrants revival.

Yet the real discovery is The Poet in Exile, a song-cycle to texts by the Polish-American author and cultural eminence Czesław Miłosz. For all its undoubted depth and profundity, these texts are not easily rendered in musical terms, and it is to Arlen’s credit that he goes a considerable way towards elucidating them thus. As the latter states, these poems ‘‘dealt with situations echoing my own remembrance of things past’’; a quality which holds good from the trenchant rhetoric of ‘Incantation’, via the sombre rumination of ‘Island’ then the whimsical elegance of ‘In Music’ and controlled fervour of ‘For J.L.’ (with its distinctive obligato for harpsichord), to the confiding intimacy of ‘Recovery’. Inquiring listeners may already have heard these songs with piano on one of the Gramola releases with Christian Immler accompanied by Danny Driver (GRAM98946), but this version – as orchestrated by Kenneth Woods after an arrangement by Eskender Bekmembatov – makes for a richer and wider-ranging context for a vocal line projected with real assurance by Thomas Mole.

Throughout these works, the musicians of the ESO are heard to advantage in the spacious acoustic of Hoddinott Hall and are directed by Woods with sure sense of where to place the emotional emphasis – especially important in conveying the meaning of the songs. If not a major voice, Arlen’s output is always approachable and often thought-provoking. Anyone who has encountered it will enjoy getting to know his music on a larger scale and hearing it played so persuasively: a worthy present for the composer in advance of his 102nd birthday.

These works are available for free public viewing from 13-17 May on the English Symphony Orchestra website

For further information on Walter Arlen, click here – and for the appropriate Gramola Records link click here. Meanwhile click on the names for more on Czesław Miłosz, the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Adrian Williams: Symphony no.1

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Adrian Williams Symphony no.1 (2018-19, rev. 2021)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Studio recording 1-2 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The 21st Symphony Project, launched five years ago by the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods, has seen several impressive premieres – with this First Symphony by Adrian Williams its most ambitious yet, whether in terms of underlying conception or overall impact.

Now in his mid-60s, Williams has been a notable presence – albeit on the periphery – of music in the UK for several decades (more information can be found via the web references below); his advocates including Raphael Wallfisch and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. Regular listeners to the ESO’s digital concerts will have encountered his striking Chamber Concerto ‘Portraits of Ned Kelly’ and intricately wrought eloquence of Migrations for strings; aspects from both resurfacing here, if on a considerably larger scale and exuding correspondingly greater force.

Playing almost 50 minutes and scored for a sizable orchestra including triple woodwind, five horns, four trumpets and four percussionists with harp, piano and celesta, the present work is evidently a summation of where its composer has reached over the course of his musical (and likely extra-musical) odyssey. Not that there is anything gratuitous or self-indulgent about the outcome; indeed, for all its formal complexity and emotional reach, this is music created out of inherently basic motifs – its initial three notes and their rearrangement generating the first movement’s main themes as well as outlining a long-term tonal trajectory which, though not pursued as systematically as in the earlier symphonies of Robert Simpson, remains as a focus throughout the intervening activity and the focal-point toward which such activity is directed.

From its imposing Maestoso epigraph, the opening Stridente unfolds against the background of, without thereby adhering to, sonata-form principles – its motivic components drawn into a continuous and frequently combative evolution necessarily left unresolved at the close. There follows a Scherzando that eschews ternary design for a through-composed format proceeding by tension and release to its decisive ending. To say the ensuing Lento is the expressive crux of this work might detract from the plangent, desolate tone of music whose frequently sparse textures and elliptical harmonies re-affirm that ‘less is more’. Despite its Energico marking, the finale unfolds with slow-burning momentum made cumulative by channelling its motivic evolution towards a Dolente apotheosis whose outcome is as inevitable as it is transcendent.

An impressive piece in terms not only of ambition but also realization. There are considerable technical challenges on route, but these are met with conviction and no little resourcefulness by an expanded ESO often tested while never fazed during its eventful course. Woods directs with his customary discretion and an attention to detail that goes a long way toward clarifying music which feels ‘complex and luminous’ as much in spirit as by design. Whether or not the outer movements might yield greater panache could only be determined under live conditions.

It might also be noted the designation is no idle boast, Williams having been commissioned to write a successor the ESO will schedule at a future date. Even were it to pursue a wholly different course, the achievement of this First Symphony is one not likely to be diminished.

You can view this concert from 25-29 March at the ESO website, and thereafter for ESO digital supporters here. For more information on Adrian Williams, head to his website or an extensive biography on the MusicWeb International site

Radio 2 Piano Room – a ray of light for February

Written by Ben Hogwood

This is not an advert…but it is a post urging you to listen to some of the sessions in BBC Radio 2’s Piano Room series of concerts if you haven’t already.

Over the last month on Radio 2’s weekday Ken Bruce show, a different act each day has delivered three songs from the BBC’s Maida Vale studios. While the title implies the act will be alone at the piano, the reality is that two of their songs are recast by the BBC Concert Orchestra and their team of expert arrangers. For a bonus the chosen soloist(s) will cover a song of their choice.

The results, quite frankly, have been unexpectedly good and occasionally spectacular. Performers that you might think of as day to day radio fodder have reinvented their songs in this environment. David Gray, for instance, a fine songwriter who arguably suffers from overexposure of his most familiar songs, was transformed. Please Forgive Me (a brilliant arrangement by Tim Bradshaw), This Year’s Love and a cover of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer took on a life of their own in the Piano Room’s first instalment, setting the tone for what followed.

Over the weeks there have been some deeply impressive sessions from newer artists who have raised their game. Radio staples such as Anne-Marie, Ella Henderson and Clean Bandit delivered heartfelt sessions, where every breath could be heard and felt on the airwaves, the musical equivalent to an actor appearing on the West End stage. Anne-Marie in particular deserves great credit for elevating Ed Sheeran’s Bad Habits to another level entirely.

The real stars, dare I say it, have been the BBC Concert Orchestra and their team of arrangers. They have delivered consistently strong and sensitive versions of these songs, lovingly crafted and gaining new qualities through the exquisite string and woodwind writing. Although they have a full orchestra at their disposal the arrangers have never overused them, always keeping the vocalists at the front.

My personal favourites in this month have been David Gray, Simple Minds, Tears for Fears, Jamie Cullum and – unexpectedly – Natalie Imbruglia, who sang a beautifully arranged version of Torn that really cut to the heart.

There are however still a couple of sessions I have yet to hear – and if they reach the same standard as those listed then we are in for a treat.

Take my advice, then, and head for the iPlayer or BBC Sounds, where no less than 60 freshly minted songs await. You will not be disappointed. Now, which other world broadcaster could possibly offer this?

Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: The music of Saxton & Sawyers

eso-saxton-sawyers

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Sawyers Remembrance (2020); Octet (2007)
Saxton
The Resurrection of the Soldiers (2016)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
7-8 April 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

For the latest in their online series, the English Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Kenneth Woods presented a trio of works written in the last 20 years. The music of Philip Sawyers, their Composer Laureate, featured in two contrasting pieces.

A recent work, Remembrance for Strings, made an instant impact. This deeply emotive, thought provoking piece has a hint of Elgar in its profoundly elegiac tone and scoring, but unmistakably bears Sawyers’ fingerprints as the theme evolves, gradually creeping upwards. The strings of the ESO were perfectly paced by Woods, giving the theme plenty of room and bringing the important viola and cello lines through the texture. Sawyers finds effective contrasts between notable pain points of discord and an almost complete stillness as the strings collect their thoughts, holding their collective breath in ideally weighted phrasing. This deeply affecting piece deserves to be heard much further afield, its impact comparable (if notably different) to that of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. A note for Emily Davis, the ESO guest leader, who gave a touching final solo.

Sawyers’ Octet was next, a single movement work from 2007 written for the youthful ensemble Liquid Architecture. With a scoring for clarinet, horn, bassoon, string quartet and double bass, its colours provided the ideal contrast to Remembrance, as did its series of compact melodies and increasingly busy exchanges, carefully interwoven throughout the ensemble. Written in a single movement, the Octet is an involving work, treating the eight players as soloists but exploring and enjoying their properties in smaller group discussions. Perhaps inevitably the mind is briefly cast back to Stravinsky’s work for the same number of players, but also the harmonic language of Berg and Hindemith. When all the instruments play together the dense contrapuntal writing is at its most effective, while Sawyers ensures the component melodies can be appreciated in a solo capacity too. Kenneth Woods conducted a fine account here, the ESO soloists playing with flair and sensitivity, all the while gathering momentum towards an emphatic arrival in C major. The instrumentalists’ placing, and some sensitive camera work under the direction of videographer Tim Burton, allowed heightened insight into the speed of Sawyers’ rapidly evolving ideas.

As he approaches his 70th birthday, Robert Saxton is a British composer arguably yet to receive the full recognition of which his music is surely due. The Resurrection of The Soldiers is an illustration of his ability to respond to art from another form with remarkable perception. A 12-minute tone poem for string orchestra, written in 2016 and dedicated to George Vass, The Resurrection of The Soldiers is a powerfully concentrated work, responding as it does to the final panel of Stanley Spencer’s commission for Sandham Memorial Chapel. The set of paintings result from the artist’s experiences in the British army in World War One, depicting soldiers emerging from their graves on the last day.

Clearly this depiction struck a lasting emotional chord with the composer, his response speaking initially of searing pain but progressing to a much more hopeful outcome. The upper strings of the ESO spoke powerfully here, maintaining their intensity in the long notes before digging in to an eventful exchange in the energetic central section. This culminated in a powerful chord, richly scored – and with a reverent pause from which the resurrection itself evolved with increasing surety, reaching an exultant if not un-scarred E major.

You may wish to complement the ESO’s performance with detail from the artwork itself, from the National Trust website, or you may wish to form your own images which the music powerfully imprints. Either way, do catch the whole of this compelling program, for these are three very meaningful pieces of music given in the best possible performances.

You can view this concert from 18-22 February at the ESO website, and thereafter for ESO digital supporters here

Online concert – English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Tchaikovsky: String Quartet no.3

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English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Tchaikovsky arr. Woods String Quartet No. 3 in E flat minor, Op. 30 (1876)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
12-13 July 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English String Orchestra launched its schedule for 2022 with another premiere – that of Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet in an arrangement by Kenneth Woods, continuing a line of such rethinking which has previously included Brahms’s Second Piano Quartet (Nimbus NI6364).

Completed early in 1876, this work came about through the premature demise of Ferdinand Laub who led those premieres of Tchaikovsky’s previous quartets and whom the composer held in highest regard. Its tonic-key is unexpected yet influential (notably on Shostakovich), not least in an opening movement where the Andante introduction leads to an Allegro whose fervent striving never quite breaks free of the fatalism from which it emerges and to which it returns. Woods might have made more of that Allegro’s undulating emotions, but his take on its introduction and coda duly enhanced their sombre intensity. Nor was there any lack of wit or urbanity in the next movement, poised unerringly between scherzo and intermezzo, which could become almost as popular as the waltz of the Serenade for Strings in this incarnation.

Interesting that Tchaikovsky belatedly reversed the order of the middle movements, given the Andante funebre is the undoubted highpoint of this work and its impact would be diminished if heard earlier in the overall design. Moreover, Woods’ arrangement was at its finest here in terms of the interplay between solo and ensemble strings – those soliloquys for violin, viola and cello given added pathos by the greater textural depth; not least as the movement reaches its anguished climax then subsides into the chant-inflected elegy of its closing stages. Maybe the finale would have conveyed even more a sense of release at a swifter tempo, but Woods was scrupulous as regards its ‘non troppo’ marking; nor was there any lack of resolve as this movement headed on its impetuous course towards a decisive and life-affirming conclusion.

A convincing new guise, then, for arguably the finest of Tchaikovsky’s chamber works (not least compared to the over-inflated arrangements of Souvenir de Florence), and a welcome reminder of the ESO’s collective prowess whether heard in original pieces or transcriptions.

You can view this concert from 21-25 January at the ESO website, and thereafter for ESO digital supporters here. Meanwhile for information on the ESO’s latest release of the music of Steven R. Gerber, click here