Online concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Music from Wyastone – Sibelius: Symphony no.6 & Tapiola

Sibelius Symphony no.6 in D minor Op.104 (1923); Tapiola Op.112 (1926)

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 1-2 March 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

A cycle of Sibelius symphonies by the English Symphony Orchestra got underway last year with an impressive account of the Seventh, making this second instalment the more pertinent for showing just how the composer had arrived at that work and where he went from there.

Only if the Sixth Symphony is viewed as neo-classical does it feel elusive, rather than a deft reformulation of Classical precepts as here. The first movement duly unfolded as a seamless evolution whose emotional contrasts are incidental – Kenneth Woods ensuring its purposeful course complemented the circling repetition of the following intermezzo, with its speculative variations upon that almost casual opening gesture. Ideally paced, the scherzo yielded a more incisive tone which the finale then pursued in a refracted sonata design as gained intensity up to its climactic mid-point. Tension dropped momentarily here, quickly restored in a disarming reprise of its opening and a coda whose evanescence was well conveyed; a reminder Sibelius Six is as much about eschewal of beginnings and endings in its seeking after a new cohesion.

A suitably expanded ESO then tackled Tapiola – Sibelius’s last completed major work, whose prefatory quatrain implies an elemental aspect duly rendered through the near/total absence of transition in music of incessant evolution. A quality to the fore in this perceptive reading with Woods finding the right balance between formal unity and expressive diversity throughout its underlying course. Just occasionally there was a lack of that ‘otherness’ as endows this music with its uniquely disquieting aura, yet a steadily accumulating momentum was rarely in doubt towards the seething climax, then a string threnody whose anguish can bestow only the most tenuous of benedictions. A reminder, too, that not the least reason Sibelius might have failed to complete his Eighth Symphony was because he had already realized it in the present work.

The ESO being heard to advantage in the spacious clarity of Wyastone Hall, these accounts will be worth getting to know on commercial release (with the Seventh Symphony) early next year, when this cycle will itself continue with recordings of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies

These works are available for viewing on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 29 July – 1 August, then through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

Online concert – Raphael Wallfisch, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Reimagined

Elgar, arr. Fraser Miniatures for cello and strings: Chanson de Matin; Chanson de Nuit; The Wild Bears (Wand of Youth Suite No.2); Nimrod (Enigma Variations); Romance Op.62; Sospiri Op.70; Mazurka; Pleading; In Moonlight; Salut d’Amour; Adieu

Raphael Wallfisch (cello), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Live performance at Guildhall, Worcester, 29 October 2021

by Richard Whitehouse

An afternoon concert at last year’s Elgar Festival, these Miniatures for cello and strings had been arranged by Donald Fraser for Raphael Wallfisch. Extending to an 11-movement suite, its viability in terms of smaller groupings was certainly demonstrated by this performance.

Chanson de Matin provided a mellifluous entrée, and if the cello’s assumption of the melodic line marginally obscured the strings’ contribution, that could not be said of Chanson de Nuit whose sombre inwardness was unerringly realized. Nor did The Wild Bears lose on impetus, and if the arrangement conjured Saint-Saëns, this only served to underline the importance of ‘Second Empire’ music on Elgar’s own thinking. Interesting, too, how the Romance brought soloist and strings into an even closer accord than the composer’s version with orchestra. The highlight, however, was Sospiri, for presenting one of Elgar’s finest inspirations in a striking new light. Salut d’Amour then conveyed the music’s essence without cloying, but the cello’s dominance in Nimrod detracted from its subtlety of orchestration as an ‘Enigma Variation’.

A wistful take on Adieu provided an affecting encore, but almost all these pieces would make a viable such item after the Cello Concerto or another British concertante work. What was a relaxed occasion does not imply any less commitment from Wallfisch and the English String Orchestra, heard to advantage with Kenneth Woods in the acoustic of Worcester’s Guildhall. The Miniatures sequence can be heard in full on Elgar Reimagined (Lyrita), but this selection offered an attractive contrast to those larger symphonic works heard elsewhere at the festival.

These works are available for viewing on the English Symphony Orchestra website, by way of a subscription or free trial. Further information on the Elgar Reimagined series can be found here. Meanwhile click on the names for more on Raphael Wallfisch, the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

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?