In concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Sibelius: Symphony no.7


English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Sibelius Symphony no.7 in C major Op.105 (1924)

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth on 2 May 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It is good to see that, despite resuming its live schedule this autumn, the English Symphony Orchestra has continued the Music from Wyastone online series as was such a boon over 18 months of lockdown. Moreover, this latest instalment begins the ESO’s most ambitious such project – the seven symphonies (with Tapiola) by Sibelius to run across the 65th anniversary of his death next year. Starting with the Seventh Symphony is certainly a provocative gambit, and it remains to be seen whether this cycle unfolds in strictly backward chronological order.

A decisive (but not simple) test in a performance of this work is how the overall trajectory is perceived. In almost all the most successful readings, the music evolves as if intuitively – the end being implicit in the beginning more than with any symphony before or since. This was certainly true of the ESO’s account, in which the formal constituents were hardly tangible as such until after the event. Sibelius may have distilled the thematic aspect to its essentials, yet in so fusing form and content he endowed this piece with an inevitability always evident here.

Following an expectant if not unduly tense introduction, Kenneth Woods built the first main section with unforced eloquence to a first statement of the trombone chorale as provides the formal backbone. His transition into the ‘scherzo’ was less abrupt than many, while picking up energy such that the chorale’s reappearance generated the requisite momentum to sustain the relatively extended ‘intermezzo’ with its felicitous interplay of woodwind and strings. If his approach to the chorale’s last emergence seemed a fraction cautious, the latter’s intensity carried over into the searing string threnody (much emulated but not equalled by generations since) that subsided into pensive uncertainty – from where the music gathered itself one last time for a magisterial crescendo which, rightly, did not so much end as merely cease to be.

A deeply thoughtful and superbly realized performance which launches the ESO’s Sibelius cycle in impressive fashion. A pity, though, that the end-credits should be accompanied with a repeat of music heard earlier. At the close of such a piece, the rest really should be silence.

Further information on the ESO’s current season can be found at their website

In concert – ESO Digital Black History Concert – The Art of the Rag


English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Joplin (arr. Schuller) Maple Leaf Rag (1899)
(arr. Schuller) Castle House Rag (1914)
(arr. Schuller) Charleston Rag (1917)
 Black Bottom Stomp (1925)
(arr. Schuller) The Entertainer (1902)

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth on November 10th, 2020
First broadcast on October 28th, 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although recorded just over a year ago, the English Symphony Orchestra’s Art of the Rag made an ideal contribution to the most recent Black History Month – focussing on music by four of the most influential practitioners of the dance-form that became known as Ragtime.

He might not actually have attained his 100th birthday, but Eubie Blake remains among the most versatile of those composers who straddled the (apparent) divide between ragtime and jazz – Charleston Rag typical in its harmonic sideslips and rhythmic syncopation confidently rendered here. His contribution to the promoting of Black musicians, furthering the American war-effort, and creating specifically African-American music has overshadowed James Reese Europe’s compositions – Castle House Rag conveying an ambivalent jollity which was surely intended. Because he lived long enough to perform and record extensively, Jelly Roll Morton has no equals in evolving a jazz idiom – Black Bottom Stomp effectively codifying what was merely a dance craze into a musical template which was to have far-reaching consequences.

Framing these items were the two most popular rags by Scott Joplin. Among his earliest such pieces, Maple Leaf Rag was a success immediately on publication, while The Entertainer had chalked up a plethora of arrangements even before the ragtime revival of the early 1970s, but neither secured financial success for their hapless composer. They certainly responded well to dextrous and attentive playing from the ESO, ably directed by Kenneth Woods and given the benefit – as were most of these pieces – of stylish arrangements by the late Gunther Schuller.

An enterprising selection such as more than fulfilled its purpose in promoting music whose familiarity need not detract from its innovative qualities. Perhaps the ESO could yet mount    a concert or even a staged presentation of Joplin’s magnum opus – the opera Treemonisha?

Further information on the ESO’s current season can be found at their website

In concert – Guildhall Chamber Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein: Music by Andrzej & Roxanna Panufnik, Still & Copland

Joshua Weilerstein 58_credit Sim Canetty-Clark (2)

Heather Brooks (harp), Guildhall Chamber Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

Andrzej Panufnik Harmony (1989)
Roxanna Panufnik
Powers & Dominions (2001)
Mother and Child (1943) [UK premiere]
Appalachian Spring: Suite (1943/5)

Milton Hall, London
Wednesday 27 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; picture of Joshua Weilerstein by Sam Canetty-Clarke

The Guildhall Chamber Orchestra was heard this evening at its regular base in a programme where works by father and daughter either side of the Millennium complemented music from American composers enjoying their greatest success in the run-up to the Second World War.

A pity that Harmony has remained among the lesser known of Andrzej Panufnik’s works, as this ‘Poem for Chamber Orchestra’ encapsulates traits that define his mature output. Scored for pairs of woodwinds and a group of strings (the size variable according to forces available) placed stereophonically, its 18 minutes effect the gradual coming-together of various textural, harmonic, rhythmic and melodic possibilities in what – unusually for this composer – is less a symmetrical (let alone palindromic) form than a cumulative design unfolding from the most speculative exchanges to sustained outpouring. Commemorating both the 75th anniversary of the composer’s birth and the 25th anniversary of his marriage, it exemplifies those concerns for long-term formal and expressive integration as are achieved here with seamless cohesion.

It received a reading of real commitment by the Guildhall CO under the attentive direction of Joshua Weilerstein (who will hopefully tackle some of the Panufnik symphonies in future), joined by Heather Brooks for Powers & Dominions by Roxanna Panufnik. A composer who has often expressed a love for the instrument, this ‘Concertino for Harp and Orchestra’ falls into two contrasted parts. Enigmatically duly emerges from speculative gestures to take on increasing emotional intensity as melodic elements derived from two of the Psalms come to the fore, while Sinisterly brings a bracing confrontation with the vibraphone and orchestral harp that climaxes in a wide-ranging cadenza then heads into a haunting recessional. Heather Brooks proved an adept and sensitive soloist for one of this composer’s more durable works.

Weilerstein was surely right in his introductory remarks to suggest that William Grant Still’s Mother and Child was tonight receiving its first hearing in the UK. Arranged from the second movement of this composer’s Suite for Violin and Piano and taking inspiration from Sargent Johnson’s eponymous sculpture, its 10 minutes weave diaphanous textures around a melody with overtones of a spiritual and which – as often with this composer – yields an appealing profile. It could yet prove a worthwhile addition to the roster of American works for strings.

The Suite from Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring may need no such introduction, but it remains a testing assignment which the Guildhall CO tackled with increasing confidence. As a rule it was the more animated episodes that came off best, Weilerstein securing playing of no mean verve and rhythmic definition such as propelled the music forward as a cumulative entity. If the culminating Variations on a Shaker Hymn seemed a little too blatant in overall expression, the ensuing postlude struck a resonance through the sensitivity of its realization.

It certainly made for a fitting conclusion to this concert, and one in which the qualities of the Guildhall CO’s playing were enhanced by the consistency of Weilerstein’s insights across a varied and demanding programme. Hopefully they will be back working together before long.

For further information on the Guildhall current season head to their website. For more Joshua Weilerstein head here

In concert – Sarah Beth Briggs, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Mozart in Cheltenham


Sarah Beth Briggs (piano, above), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Sawyers The Valley of Vision (2017)
Piano Concerto no.22 in E flat major K482 (1785)
Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

Town Hall, Cheltenham
Monday 25 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; picture of Sarah Beth Briggs by Carolyn Mendelsohn

Tonight’s concert found the English Symphony Orchestra at the Town Hall in Cheltenham, a building of Victorian opulence with an expansive while (surprisingly?) immediate acoustic to match, in a programme featuring classics of their respective media by Mozart and Beethoven.

First, though, a welcome revival for The Valley of Vision – the tone poem by Philip Sawyers that surveys the environs around Shoreham, Kent as were immortalized in the visionary early landscapes of Samuel Palmer. Although the composer had identified five continuous sections, the probing intensity of this music makes for a seamless unfolding which was to the fore in a superbly focussed account as directed by Kenneth Woods (who recently premiered Sawyers’ Fifth Symphony at the Colorado Mahler Festival). No less tangible was the control over this music’s momentum, extending through to a climactic faster section before soon regaining its initial pensiveness. In its subtly evocative aura and persuasive handling of tonality, moreover, this piece can rank with the most significant British orchestral works of the past two decades.

From the six piano concertos that Mozart wrote for his subscription concerts during the mid-1780s, the Twenty-Second is likely the least often heard. A pity, when its relatively expansive form and unpredictability of content are striking even in the context of this most exploratory phase from the composer’s output. Certainly, it is a piece of which Sarah Beth Briggs had the measure – whether in the forceful impetus of its opening Allegro, winsome interplay between soloist and woodwind in the central Andante (arguably the most eloquent among Mozart’s sets of variations) or blithe unfolding of a final Rondo afforded greater pathos by the ‘harmonien’ episode whose interposing was an inspired departure. Nor were Dennis Matthews’s succinct and artfully integrated cadenzas other than an enhancement of what was a fine performance.

Not that there was there anything routine about Beethoven’s Pastoral following the interval, a worthy successor to those performances of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies that Woods and the ESO have given in recent concerts. Thus, a purposeful though never inflexible take on the opening movement left sufficient room to characterize its reflective asides, with the ‘Scene by the brook’ even more engrossing through its homogeneity of texture and seamless continuity; the closing bird-calls elegantly phrased and enticingly integrated into the whole.

Too rapid a tempo for the scherzo left Woods with insufficient room to point up contrasts in motion with its trio sections, but the Thunderstorm was finely rendered as an extended introduction into the finale – this Shepherd’s Song emerging as the formal and emotional culmination in all respects. Not the least of these strengths was an inevitability of progress – here maintained right through to a coda of serene poise and, in the process, underlining the degree to which any vestige of self has been sublimated into the enveloping cosmic dance.

An absorbing performance as made one look forward to further Beethoven symphonies from this source. Woods and ESO are in Worcester at the weekend with two concerts as part of the Autumn Elgar Festival, the first featuring the masterly Elegy for Strings by Harold Truscott.

Further information on the ESO’s current season can be found at their website. For more on composer Philip Sawyers, visit his website here, while more on pianist Sarah Beth Briggs can be found at her website

On the airwaves: Erland Cooper

For Saturday, a listening recommendation for you – from the very top of the British Isles. Thanks to the BBC you can spend half an hour on the Orkney islands right now, in the company of Erland Cooper.

The prolific Cooper has enjoyed a rich run of creativity since writing in a solo capacity about the island of his birth. A trilogy of albums based around the elements, begun with Solan Goose and working through Sule Skerry and Hether Blether, have themselves led to fruitful collaborations with the likes of Leo Abrahams, Hannah Peel and Paul Weller.

This programme finds Cooper journeying back to Orkney for the first time since lockdown, in the company of violinist Daniel Pioro, to celebrate the work of poet George Mackay Brown, a family friend of the Coopers. The two musicians have recorded a substantial three-movement work for violin and strings, but only one reel-to-reel recording exists, and the programme, while celebrating Mackay Brown’s book An Orkney Tapestry, documents its burial in the Orcadian soil. If it is not found beforehand, the piece will be released in 2024 on the Mercury KX label, where Cooper now resides.

For more behind that and many more stories, listen below!